29th January 2023 | James Cove, Verbier, Switzerland
Last modified on January 31st, 2023
We started at dawn with avalanche bombing and ended at dusk with the final sweep of the pistes. There was much in between, in what was our most interesting days of the season so far. NEW
07.30 – The team of Verbier pisteurs met in their main office at Ruinettes under the lift station.
They decide what needs bombing and what measures need to be taken to make the pistes safe for the thousands of people that will be on the slopes later in the day.
25,000 people are on the slopes on a busy day in Verbier but at the moment, in the second half of January, it is about 9,000.
The aim of the patrol is to make sure each person returns to the resort safely at the end of the day.
The man with that responsibility on his shoulders is Paul Victor the head of piste security.
PV, as he is universally known, has been with the Verbier Piste Patrol for 40 years.
He has been the boss for 28-years.
“I think of the worst case scenarios and use that model for making my decisions about when to open slopes and when to close them,” he tells me.
“People should be aware of the risks, but many expect the mountains to be a safe area like an amusement park with everything controlled, but in the mountains it is different.”
It is immediately clear he commands the utmost respect of all the patrollers.
I had a long chat and interview with PV later in the day, so more of that later.
There are more pressing things to do ahead of the slopes opening.
Like carrying the explosive charges from a special underground store near Ruinettes on to the gondola and up to Attelas where they are needed today.
The brown box looks like a delivery from Amazon.
It is not.
Inside are the explosives needed to detonate avalanches after all the recent fresh snow Verbier has seen.
The patrol goes up in an open gondola even though it is -20c outside.
They are hardy mountain people, and I am told they need to feel the weather and see the conditions.
No windows for them.
Up and away.
So, what are the requirements to become patroller?
There is an entry test and then a 2-week course focusing on skiing, snow and the medical side of things.
In an accident situation they are seen as first responders who then call in doctors when needed.
After one year of experience the patrollers are then able to do a 2-week course on setting off avalanches and dealing with explosives.
I was not allowed out with the patrol to see the charges being detonated for obvious safety reasons but I watched from a distance.
The first charge was an automatically triggered from inside the pisteurs hut at Attelas.
The was a flash and several seconds later a loud bang.
It did not set off a slide, so the face of Mont Gele, and the red piste beneath it, was pronounced safe.
There are 32 people in the Verbier Piste Patrol and they look after the three sectors:
One is an English woman – Victoria Jamieson.
She is the only Brit on the team and one of five women.
“It is no different being a woman as we have the same qualifications, but some of the physical demands are harder – like skiing down the mountain with a heavy casualty in the sledge.”
She has worked in Verbier for 14-years.
“I have had my fair share of avalanches to deal with, when people are buried.
“Some end up fine with casualties rescued alive and other times the outcome is not so favourable.”
“One never knows what one will find when the call comes after an avalanche and it is horrible dealing with a fatality.”
The pisteurs are offered counselling and help if they need it after dealing with serious injuries and fatalities.
I was shown the sledge/blood wagon.
It is primitive but it works.
I could see what Victoria meant about the strength needed to control it.
Verbier is one of the top resorts in the world for freeriding and off piste, and it is on a constant and never-ending mission to educate people about safety.
To this end there is a special transceiver search area near Ruinettes.
It can be used any day and every Sunday the patrol offer free training so people can use their transceiver, probe and shovel.
And as we finished our search PV skied by.
“The big difference I have seen over the years is the number of people that now ski off piste,” he said.
“I am only responsible for the marked runs not the off piste but it is a factor in my decision making process as I decide which lifts to to open and which off piste areas can be reached.
“People must be aware of the dangers and educate themselves. They need to be aware of the risks and take decisions in line with the risks.”
The patrol was called out three times on the day I was with them – 2 off piste incidents and 1 on piste.
The injures were not serious.
Usually there are around half a dozen incidents each day.
Mostly they are on the piste and there are more when the snow is sparse.
“At Christmas this season there was not really enough snow and people were not adapting their behaviour accordingly,” said PV.
“Some were simply going too fast for the conditions. My job is much easier when there is lots of snow and no rocks.”
Then there was a real treat for me.
“James, you seem to know what you are doing off piste. I am heading off to check out the back of Mont Gele, do you fancy coming along,” said 23-year old patroller, Stanley Kelly.
Before I could say ‘OK’ I was with him heading up on the Mont Gele single cable car.
We weren’t so much checking the slopes – he was just showing me a few spots he knows on Mont Gele.
Then it was back to the ski patrollers hut at Attelas to wait for the final sweep after the lifts had long ceased to turn and the runs had shut.
We did what most patrollers do.
We sat in the hut chatting, drinking tea, and waiting.
Each patroller has his own tea cup in each of the huts.
From the main office room at Ruinettes,
To the huts on the mountainside,
The patrollers are rotated round the three sectors of Verbier, Bruson and Savolyres spending 2-days in each.
Then, at 5pm, it was the last event of the day.
“The final sweep run is always a treat as their is rarely anyone around and we have the slopes to ourselves as the sun goes down,” said patroller Cyril Filliez.
“Sometimes we come across a person who has ended up on a slope too difficult for them and then we help them down.
“Later in the season we often find people having a picnic or a beer and we have to tell them the slopes are closed.
“If they refuse we can call the police but we prefer to use the method of persuasion.”
The clothing manufacturer, Helly Hansen, provides the kit worn by the Verbier ski patrol.
February 10th this year is International Ski Patrol Day – a day to highlight the work of all ski patrollers and the thank them for the work they do.
“To say thanks to patrollers everywhere, we’ll be rallying our resorts and patrollers to make some noise on the day,” said Helly Hansen.
“From 9-11 February 2023, we’ll also donate 5% of revenue from our online sales to various organizations that support patrollers and safety groups,” it added.
Here at PlanetSKI we shall be marking and reporting on the day itself so do check back for that.
Helly Hansen supports Ski Patrollers in resorts across the world.
See more information about its backing here.
So, what are my overall impressions after a full day with the Verbier Ski Patrol?
Firstly a deep respect for the job they do.
Secondly an admiration for a tightly knit team working together to make the slopes safe for the rest of us mere mortals, so we can have an enjoyable time out in the mountains and on the snow.
It is hard work often in difficult conditions and they do it with professionalism, dedication and skill.
Here at PlanetSKI we thank the ski patrol of Verbier, and all the other patrollers across the resorts of the world.
Don’t forget to check back for PlanetSKI’s coverage of International Ski Patrol Day on February 10th.