French patrolman jumps at the opportunity of lifetime
Aspen can still cast an enchanting spell in wintertime – justask Frenchman Daniel Gex. Gex is spending the ski season working on the Aspen Mountain SkiPatrol as part of the Sister Cities exchange program. He livesin Chamonix, one of Aspen’s Sister Cities, and patrols at Le Brevant,one of five ski areas surrounding the famed French resort. He signed up at the end of last ski season to participate in theannual Sister Cities patrol exchange that sent Aspen patrollerJesse James overseas for the 1998-99 winter. “I never had a chance to come to the U.S. and this was an opportunity,”Gex said through interpreter Doug Driskell of the Aspen MountainSki Patrol. “I wanted to get out of the Chamonix Valley and seeother things.” Gex is a native of the Chamonix Valley and has lived there allhis life. He said he’s ventured into neighboring Italy and Switzerland,but never previously strayed too far from home. He said he probablynever would have traveled to the United States if not for theexchange. He had plenty of coaching on what to expect on this trip. Sixof his fellow patrollers at Le Brevant have previously participatedin the program. Tough time to be away The only downside to his trip to Aspen has been the cataclysmicevents that recently struck Chamonix. The valley experienced one of its biggest blizzards in 20 yearsearlier this month. The storm triggered avalanches that came downfarther than ever before, eclipsing even some legendary slidesof 1908, according to Gex. Chalets in the villages of Le Tour and Montroc were flattenedby slides. At least 12 locals and tourists were killed and morewere believed buried in the rubble of buildings. Scores of homeshad to be evacuated. Gex was naturally concerned for his wife and three children, whodidn’t make the trip with him this winter. He was able to getthrough by telephone to check on his family while the slides presenteda threat. “Our house was right on the edge of one big avalanche path,” explainedGex. “They didn’t get evacuated, but the people right next tothem did.” Different skiing experiences Although patrollers are facing particularly perilous duty nowback at Le Brevant, Gex said the work is generally comparableto what he’s doing at Aspen Mountain. Le Brevant is a smaller ski area than Aspen Mountain and has asmaller patrol. It employs about 10 patrollers, with seven oreight on duty at any time. Aspen Mountain has about 32 patrollers,with about 18 on duty. At Aspen, Gex is paired with one of four French-speaking patrollers,like Driskell, whenever possible. He’s able to tackle many ofhis duties with their help translating English.Gex and his colleagues at Le Brevant don’t work as backcountryguides. They sweep trails, aid the injured and perform avalanchecontrol. One of the biggest differences, he said, is the widespread useof helicopters there. “We use helicopters a lot more for avalanche control and to flyout injured people,” he said. That’s because the lower slopes are extremely steep. Customersride a tram to upper slopes, where there’s a variety of terrain- sometimes even groomed trails. A second tram and chairliftsserve the slopes above timberline. “My ski area isn’t like anything here,” Gex said. “There’s anotherone in Chamonix that’s more similar because it’s lower and it’sgot trails cut in the trees. “Most of our terrain is above timberline. Most of the skiing isup high.” Driskell, who has climbed, skied and patrolled in the ChamonixValley, added that there are steep couloirs that skiers can take- if there’s enough snow and they are skilled enough – to getback into the valley from the upper slopes. “It’s not like Spar,” Driskell said. “It’s like, oh, Maroon Bowlor something comparable.”Hit the JackpotWith much of the skiing terrain in the treeless area at Le Brevant,the trails are staked out with bamboo. Anything in between thedelineated trails is considered out of bounds. Skiers and snowboard riders pay a fee to be covered by potentialrescues by the patrol. An extra fee is often charged for coveragefor terrain outside the designated trails, Gex explained. “We charge for the rescues there, for the toboggan ride, whereashere it’s part of the ticket,” he said. Although the skiing experiences are different, Gex said he hasliked the skiing at Aspen Mountain, too. He listed the Dumps,Jackpot and Silver Queen as some of his favorite trails. Reality has pretty much matched his expectations of the UnitedStates, due to what he heard from other patrollers. He was slightlysurprised by all the grooming that goes on at the slopes here.Popular with jet set While Gex was familiar with Aspen because of the Sister Citiesexchange, many middle-class folks in Europe are more familiarwith the Rocky Mountains or Colorado as a whole rather than Aspenspecifically. “The jet set is familiar with Aspen. It’s not as well known withthe common worker,” he said. There are definitely similarities between Aspen and Chamonix -they are both historic towns with a sense of community and famednightlife, he noted. Like Aspen, Chamonix offers even more todo in summer, when Gex works as a lumberjack. Unlike Aspen, Chamonix isn’t experiencing the same type of developmentfrenzy. Much of the development was done at the turn of the century andeverything new matches the architectural style. There is one golfcourse there, but it’s been around for a while. There isn’t aspurt of golf-related development like Colorado resorts are experiencing.Gex said he would like to see the Sister Cities exchange continue,to help promote understanding of the different areas. Since somany of the Le Brevant patrollers have already participated, futureparticipants may have to be recruited from another of Chamonix’sfive ski areas. Gex will spend the entire season here, then take a trip to Moabbefore returning to France. He said he wouldn’t hesitate advisingother French patrollers to come to Aspen.”Yeah, definitely,” he said. “You’d be crazy not to.”
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