Alack of snow and an exceptionally high risk of accidents has forced the closure of many of France’s ski runs, with slopes icy and “as hard as concrete”, officials said on Wednesday.
A combination of extremely low night temperatures and scant snowfall is making conditions treacherous even for the most proficient skiers. Local authorities blame climate change, which is also causing glaciers to melt in the Alps.
There is little likelihood of “powdery” soft snow in the coming weeks, with temperatures set to fall further but no snow forecast.
Only four out of 56 runs are open at Saint-Lary-Soulan, a resort in the Pyrenees. Jean-Claude Dupla, the director, said: “We’ve had problematic winters before, but this time, there’s no snow, even on the higher slopes. This is the first time in 20 years that anyone remembers it being this bad.”
Marcellin Bernard, a ski instructor at Val-Thorens, Europe’s highest ski resort, said lower resorts were the worst affected. “It’s still pretty good here thanks to the altitude. We’ve got the snow guns working at night, but resorts lower down like Les Menuires are having more problems. At Val-Thorens, the artificial snow makes it soft on top, but the underlying layer of natural snow is much harder than usual.”
Mr Bernard, 70, has no doubt that the cause is climate change. “I’ve observed glaciers shrinking and the snow cover moving higher over decades, and I’m certain that this phenomenon is accelerating.”
A study on the prospects for the ski industry over the next two decades, commissioned by local authorities in Isère, south-eastern France, concludes: “There will be less snow on average. It will fall less often and for shorter periods.”
The study says the only way to maintain France’s ski industry is to continue investing in artificial snow systems, but the costs are high and environmentalists are concerned about the depletion of water reserves.
Officials are urging skiers to exercise particular caution this year. Gilles Szekely, an instructor at the Chamrousse resort, said: “It freezes almost every night and in the morning it’s as hard as concrete. When you fall, you’re much more likely to break something.”
Gérard Colas, a doctor at the resort, said: “Our clinic’s full almost all day and I’m treating a lot of fractures. On ice, you can’t control your skis like you can on soft snow.’