Hikes and fat bikes: French ski firms diversify for Covid

Ski lifts are likely to remain closed through February, meaning mountain businesses are having to find other means to cope

19 January 2021
Sally Ann Voak, a Connexion writer, travelled last week to Samoëns, a town in the Grand Massif ski area, to see how businesses there are coping with being closed during the pandemic
By Sally Ann Voak

Ski resorts in France are waiting to hear official news tomorrow (January 20) on whether the lifts can open, bringing skiers in time for the profitable February half-term holidays. 

However, it is thought that the government will rule against reopening them due to the Covid-19 situation and fears over new variants spreading. 

“When the president announced the closure of the winter sports resorts, he conditioned their reopening on a decrease in the spread of the virus, with less than 5,000 contaminations per day. However, we are not there at all,” Le Monde reported an MP saying.

Prime Minister Jean Castex, meanwhile, said on Monday evening that there was “no question of prioritising economic issues over health issues”. 

Connexion writer Sally Ann Voak travelled last week to Samoëns, a town in the Grand Massif ski area in the southeast of France where she has skied every January for 16 years.

“During the pandemic the local residents, known as Septimontains (the name derives from the seven mountain pastures surrounding the village), and the non-French incomers working and living in the resort, have learned to diversify.

"Alpine ski instructors teach Nordic cross-country skills, become snowshoe guides, fat bike leaders or introduce visitors to activities like ice-climbing, avalanche safety techniques and even igloo-building. 

“Other locals offer massages or run distanced yoga and online fitness classes. Everyone helps by collecting each other’s kids from school and organising sleep-overs so parents can work and keep the resort pristine.

“Some visitors told me they have found they can work from a rented chalet here, as most have WiFi and prices are low, so they are extending their stay.

“The snow-plough teams are out each morning to clear the roads, shops and markets are open, the scenery is stunning, and there is a choice of invigorating activities.

Sally Ann spoke to four local business owners about how they are managing the pandemic.

Tom Ward-Lee - Chalet company owner

Tom Ward-Lee with his wife Ali owns a chalet company, Alps Accommodation. He says he is concerned about the future.

“In France, the half-term holiday dates vary in different regions so family skiing trips continue here for four weeks. 

“This period usually brings in our highest annual revenue and is absolutely vital for the local economy and for that of all French ski resorts. So if there are no lifts open it will be a disaster. 

“Somehow, we will cope, offer alternatives to skiing and great accommodation deals, and then prepare for Easter and next season. 

“The accommodation being chosen now is detached chalets with their own hot tub, gardens, so no need to cross paths with other guests.”

Jocelyn Briard - Ski school founder

Jocelyn Briard founded Samoëns’ 360 Ski School in December 2005. Born in the village and a highly experienced ski instructor, Jocelyn and his team have always offered other activities; now these are the main source of company revenue. He and his colleagues are rising to the challenge. 

“Co-operation between the ski instructors from different organisations has never been greater.

“For instance, we recently held a meeting on safety for ski touring, which needs special equipment and techniques. It has become very popular during the pandemic as no lifts are required. Beginners, even if they are good skiers, must be under careful instruction.

“Two local Nordic cross country skiing snow parks, the Espace Nordique at the Col du Joux Plane, in sight of Mont Blanc, and the Cirque du Fer à Cheval  on a lower slope at Sixt, offer excitement for all ages; you can hire all the gear at the sites. 

“The skating-style version is fun on the lake at Joux Plane, which has been partially drained and refrozen. There are walking trails, toboggan runs and regular bus services operate between the village centre and the Nordic skiing areas.  

“Our team can take you up, supervise and keep you safe.”

For a gentler experience, Jocelyn offers spectacular mountain tours with a leading naturalist to explain flora and fauna.

He is planning white water rafting on the frozen river (Giffre) for next season.

Hugues Burlot - Ski school instructor

Hugues Burlot works for the Zig Zag Ski School. Born in Brittany, he is passionate about his village home, and shows visitors the joys of many mountain treats, from paragliding to  snowshoeing.

“We take you onto the most scenic trails and provide all the equipment and transport.

He also recommends i360.com ice climbing, for over 15s. “It sounds daunting to climb a waterfall, but we use a smallish one for beginners. It is like rock climbing with crampons and ice axes!”    

Jamie Carr - Mountain bike guide

Jamie Carr, a professional mountain guide for 25 years and originally from Leeds, moved to the Alps in 2003.

His main source of income in France has always been from his summer mountain bike business. This year, his “fat biking”, igloo building and “Snow Sense'' courses, which include avalanche awareness and piste safety, are available to all ages.  

“My groups use snowshoes, not skis, so anyone can come along.

“For biking you need strong trainers or waterproof shoes with plenty of grip.

“The safety course is about avoiding problems on the mountains, and dealing with life threatening situations, so is useful for everyone.“

“Igloo building requires plenty of snow, the right equipment, and warm ski clothes: We go up high, to Joux Plane, and use special firming tools to make the right shape blocks for the classic round igloo.” 

Read more:

Watch: Snow and ski joy in Paris as mountain lifts stay shut

Covid France: Curfew, vaccine, UK travel - PM’s key updates

Fears for ski season as lifts stay closed in France

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