Friday, 11 February 2011, 2:00 p.m., Crête du Peyrou d'Aval, around 2800 meters high. Under a beautiful blue sky, on a ridge that delineates the western horizon above the refuge Chancel from the classic ski routes of the Valleys of the Meije, two figures stand out.
When standing still they seem to blend in with this immense, wild and incredibly beautiful mountain.
In fact, ever alert, they scan the Glacier de la Girose below them and the slopes that descend towards the big routes: Orcières, La Voute, Chirouze…
On this particular day, the conditions are not in for these legendary descents. The regulars fully know this but as it sometimes happens, certain skiers descend too far and are trapped in the very technical couloirs. Paying attention is not to be taken lightly.
Today, there are no unusual tracks. Everything is calm. One last look, a few turns, and Pascal and Jean Charles, LaGrave mountain risk patrollers, arrive at the terrace of the refuge in order to check another area.
It has not snowed for a month. The area is completely tracked out and the snowpack is stable. In any case, it will be until the next snowfall that will blanket a nice layer. The cold snow is good for skiing but in the couloirs it can be very hard; the big risk today is falling. In these conditions, the role of the two patrollers focuses on:
- information, the morning departure of the cable car, specific information targeted to the perceived level of the skiers
- discrete vigilance throughout the day over the different routes and, if necessary, giving advice directly on the mountain
When the next snowfall arrives, a new story will begin…
Meanwhile, Pascal Guibout and Jean Charles Bonsignore fly the flag for Petzl in their unique jobs as La Grave mountain risk patrollers.
Petzl: What is the mission of the patrollers?
Jean Charles Bonsignore: "The area from the Meije valleys to La Grave is unique in the world. Up high, a small ski lift serves a piste on the glacier. Apart from that, there is nothing or close to nothing … the only things are off-piste, ski-touring routes on the glacier, valleys, couloirs and forest – almost 2000 vertical meters of pure mountain. Here, outside the only marked trail, there is no ski patrol and the area is not secured. Skiers accept their own responsibility. Keeping with the image of the area, the system established by La Grave is, to our knowledge, unique in the world. We are four patrollers employed by the municipality. Our role is to keep an eye on the security situation in the area, to play a role of light prevention for the clients and an advisory role to the municipality for the opening or closure of the cable car."
Petzl: Exactly what does your job entail?
Pascal Guibout: "In the morning, before skiers buy their tickets, we are there at the departure station to advise skiers with information on the specific conditions at the time like the weather, avalanche hazard and what equipment they need to have. Then we have a quick briefing so that the skiers, depending on their ability level and itinerary, are able to ask questions before they start. At this time of the day, we also distribute information to the tourist offices in the area and the guides' offices, and we also relay information about the snow to Météo France. Then we head up the mountain to discretely watch what happens. We follow the progress of the groups, give advice if necessary and adjust the placement of trail markers that show the main routes."
Petzl: Can you tell us more about your advisory role for the municipality?
Pascal Guibout: "It manifests itself most notably through the safety committee. In case of a significant change in the avalanche risk, we convene this committee. Composed of guides, it will follow the two main protocol for recommending, according to the snow conditions, whether it's possible or not to open the cable car. An announcement is made to the municipality who makes an official decision for the opening or the closing. I believe this commission is something unique to La Grave. It is always a highlight of local life."
Petzl: Do you participate in rescues?
Jean Charles Bonsignore: "This is a high mountain area. The rescues are made by the PGHM (high mountain rescue unit) or the CRS. However, we can always be asked to help, for example, in case there is bad weather and the helicopter can't come. Of course, we dedicate part of our time to practicing avalanche rescue and crevasse rescue."
Petzl: Tell us about your equipment.
Jean Charles Bonsignore: The backpack, of course, includes an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe. In addition, it also includes the gear for glacier travel and glacier rescue: the ADJAMA harness, the Petzl crevasse KIT, ice screws and rope. And don't forget our faithful ULTRA headlamp, which is indispensable for night rescues, and a pair of ‘climbing skins' in case we have to ski uphill…"
Petzl: You are on this mountain every day. Ultimately, what direction do you give to your mission?
Pascal Guibout: "This job would not exist anywhere else. We make it up each day while we are on the mountain. There are no certainties, we can only try to comprehend the elements to the best of our abilities. We are four patrollers, each with his own history, his own experience, his own feelings. But we are all trying, in our own way, to defend an idea: that of a mountain that we can enjoy freely, independently and responsibly. Failure would mean that under a certain pressure, society would no longer accept this idea."
Petzl: What is your strongest memory?
Jean Charles Bonsignore: "One night in December 2009, we went out during the night to search for some English skiers who climbed back up the glacier after getting lost in the Orcières. They had alerted us using their mobile phone. We were really worried because it was -20˚C. Luckily, we were able to locate them quickly using our ULTRA headlamps. Luckily, they were good skiers and they were still in good shape when we got there. In the end, the snow was excellent that night and the rescue, which at the beginning was very delicate, turned into a magic descent in the light of the headlamps … down to the bars of La Grave."
Pascal Guiboud, 44 years old.
Originally from Matheysine, Isère, France. Originally a lifty, then a cat driver at l'Alpe du Grand Serre, then a ski patrol avalanche controller, then a high mountain guide since 1993. Member of the La Grave Bureau des Guides and guide patroller since winter 2008/2009. "I have organized my life around the mountain and La Grave. I am totally immersed. I never get tired of this place … even a month after the last snowfall."
Something worth noting is that the day before we met, Pascal had just returned from two days on the north face of the Eiger…
Jean Charles Bonsignore, 41 years old.
At his core there is a strong history as a skier who dreamed of being a ski patrol. Jean Charles has been a mountain risk patroller since 2000. He is also a fireman in the Verdon in summer, a teacher at the l'Ecole d'Application de la Sécurité Civile and a rope access worker. And when he's not working … he's climbing.
Jérôme Gillet, 37 years old.
Hiking guide at the La Grave Bureau des Guides and 1st degree ski patrol. Skiing in La Grave for 11 years and ping-pong champion.
Xavier Cointeaux, 40 years old.
Mountain guide at the La Grave Bureau des Guides. Rope access site manager. In La Grave for 17 years, he has had the time to open some routes that have now become classics.