74: White stuff
Well into December now. In past years this has been a time of anxiety; daily scanning long-range forecasts in the hope of dipping temperatures. Last season it went down to the wire with the first flurries just beating the first guests to the door, but no such worries this year – we’re buried! Last week the boss jetted back to Ellan Vannin to catch up with friends and family and drum up some trade with an open-day in Regency Travel. This left yours truly in sole command with freedom & leisure to indulge in private passions but no such luck – the skies opened and we were treated to four days unrelenting snowfall. Now this is good news, and was rapidly communicated to an eager public. There’s nothing like early dumps to encourage the punters, so facebook, twitter, linked-in and every other social media outlet to hand were pressed into service to spread the glad tidings. There has been a noticeable trend over our five seasons in operation for the wily snow-tourist to delay booking accommodation until the last possible minute – good for him, maybe, but spare a thought for the blood-pressure of a hard-working chalet host. Anyway suffice to say enquiries have now picked up very nicely, thank you, and gaps on the wall planner are shrinking at a pleasing rate.
So the downside of the snow? Clearing the stuff. The Departmental highways team (yellow wagons) do a sterling job ploughing the main roads. Our munificent commune hire a digger man to clear the byways, but your own driveway is down to you. So the morning after an overnight fall sees everyone out digging with whatever tools they have to hand. These range from the trusty long handled shovel via green plastic mini ploughs to the acme of snow-kit – the petrol snow-blower. You know that comforting suburban summer-Sunday-afternoon drone of lawn-mowers – well here’s it’s the same, but each machine is biting into the white mantle and sending it arcing into the sky. Operation calls for some thought; you clear from one side so as not to spray where you’ve already cleared, but it’s all great fun.
So the open road now beckons, but driving brings its own problems, and it’s surprising how techniques need to be re-learnt each year. Both vehicles, minibus & 4x4 have a set of spare wheels fitted with snow-tyres. This year we managed to get them mounted just before the big snowfall; much tooth-sucking in the garage, debating which needed replacing – hurrah, just 2 on each. Minibus operation is reinforced with spike-spider snow chains, but they saw little use last year – the trouble is they require a good snow depth to be of any use, and as soon as you hit a cleared section of road have to be dismounted to avoid tyre damage. Clear roads in any case are not good for snow tyres, high-speed driving on the motorway dramatically shortens tyre life, although they can be re-used in the summer once they’ve lost their winter grip. In any case to try to counter an increasing air pollution problem the local authority has imposed a 20kph speed reduction in the Cluses Basin for the whole winter. The idea of smog doesn’t sit well with the image of crystal-clear alpine air, but although we’re above the problem it’s a very real issue for the valley-dwellers and often gives a sepia tint to our views down towards Bonneville.
Snow assails the senses in so many ways; sounds are deadened, cars creep past noiselessly. Morning walks are punctuated by sharp detonations as the pisteurs set off dynamite charges to clear dangerous accumulations and reduce avalanche risk. Nostrils freeze and deprived of scents the sense of smell is heightened; a sudden whiff of woodsmoke is strongly evocative, the spices in a glass of vin chaud are sharp and pungent. Today a bitter wind has sprung up flinging ice crystals into unprotected faces. I stamp up the drive to help unload the wine-delivery; bang on schedule, first guests arrive Saturday....