How about cheese with that snow?
ASPEN ” Luc Desille couldn’t have picked a better season to come from Chamonix, France, to Aspen on an exchange program for ski patrollers.
He loved skiing the endless powder. Now, if he could only find some good cheese.
Desille, 28, a Chamonix native, has been on the patrol for nine years at Le Brevent, one of the ski areas in his valley. The ski company there has swapped patrollers with the Aspen Skiing Co. on and off since the early 1990s as an offshoot of the Sister Cities program.
Desille heard stories about Aspen and Snowmass from colleagues who had already made the trip, so he was excited to participate in the season-long exchange. He was scheduled to come over last winter, but it fell through when his ski company couldn’t find a place for a Skico patroller to live.
“In Chamonix they don’t have housing for employees, so they have to find something to rent. Like Aspen, it’s very expensive,” Desille said.
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Lovin’ the powder
Desille was particularly excited to study different snow conditions. And what an opportunity he got. Snowmass saw record or near-record snowfalls in December, January and February, and snow continues to fall this month.
“What I liked about Snowmass is there is lots of different skiing there. You can go in the trees, above the treeline and the steeps,” he said.
He had been told that conditions often warmed enough to allow skiing in T-shirts in March. It’s been the opposite.
“Now, my nose is cold,” he laughed.
Desille said he wasn’t phased when he arrived in Aspen on Nov. 15 and found warm, dry conditions. While some locals were wringing their hands with worry, people he hooked up with weren’t concerned.
“Everybody told me, ‘Don’t worry, it will snow anyway,'” he said.
Desille is used to sketchy snow conditions. His valley’s snow often comes late and leaves early. The ski season there can be rainy. Last winter, he was skiing in a T-shirt in January.
He is used to wet, heavy snow. He was anxious to experience the world-famous Colorado champagne powder. Desille said he is particularly interested in snow safety and avalanche control work.
“So here, I prefer to learn about the snow, how they work, what tools they use,” he said.
Desille shared digital video showing how his patrol back at Le Brevent tosses dynamite charges from a helicopter to trigger avalanches on the jagged peaks of the Alps that tower over the ski trails. Much of the work the patrol performs is on exposed areas above treeline, he said.
“There is more exposure, not more danger, because you can avoid danger if you are smart enough,” he said.
Differences in the patrols
The patrol at Le Brevent is forced to be more diverse out of necessity because there are fewer of them. Le Brevent has 13 patrollers. There are about 75 at the four ski areas in the valley.
Desille and his 12 colleagues have more contact with the public then he had here, and they occasionally operate the chairlifts while the “lifties” are on lunch break.
He was impressed how patrollers here can pursue, to some degree, a specialty ” such as medical care or snow safety.
Skiers in Europe must pay for medical care from a rescue. Specific insurance is available to cover such calamities. At Snowmass, he marveled, the patrol was called a time or two because a skier got cold.
Uncrowded slopes also were foreign to him. “Once the Bowl was tracked there was nobody at Highlands. That surprised me,” he said.
Find him some good cheese
Desille spent most of this season at Snowmass, but he squeezed in a week of work at Aspen Highlands and is now patrolling at Aspen Mountain. The experience, he said, has been great exposure and a learning experience. One of his goals was to improve his English, which he needs to speak in Chamonix because it has such an international flavor.
Longtime Aspen Mountain patrolman Doug Driskell helps coordinate the exchange and made the trip to Chamonix earlier this decade. He said the program has been popular with local patrollers who made the trip.
“It’s interesting for us to go over to the Alps and see the birthplace of downhill skiing,” Driskell said.
John Perko of the Snowmass Ski Patrol went to Chamonix this season after studying French.
This was Desille’s first trip to the U.S., although he had visited Canada. Desille said he would recommend the exchange to other members of the ski patrol in his valley.
His only warning might be about the food. He acknowledged he misses the culinary delights of his homeland.
“I’m here with my girlfriend. The first day we were here we were at the grocery store. We stood and looked at the food and said, ‘OK, what are we going to buy?'” Desille laughed.
When asked what food he misses most, Desille didn’t need time to think: “I want cheese.”