Visiting ski patrollers enjoyed getting out of their comfort zone during a season in Aspen
The snow gods have smiled on Jean Baptiste Cappa the past two winters.
The pisteur from Chamonix, France, enjoyed a big snow year at his home ski area of La Flegere last season. They typically receive 11 to 12 meters of snow. Last season they had 20.
And this year worked perfectly for him to come to Snowmass Ski Area as part of the Aspen-Chamonix Sister Cities Exchange. The two world-famous resorts have exchanged ski patrol members since the early 1990s, not every season but frequently.
Bariloche, Argentina, and Aspen started exchanging ski patrollers in 2013 after becoming Sister Cities. Javier Cofian from Bariloche is wrapping up his season at Aspen Mountain.
The two patrollers sat down for an exit interview with The Aspen Times at Jour de Fete on Thursday morning. Aspen Mountain patroller Isabel Day, who is fluent in both French and Spanish, helped with translation when needed.
Cappa, 43, said he has a season full of good memories.
“My experience was very interesting for the human experience,” he said. Cappa elaborated by explaining it was good for him to get out of his comfort zone after 19 seasons as a pisteur at Chamonix. Participating in the exchange exposed him new experiences — from relying mostly on English to witnessing how ski patrol duties differ in the countries.
He speaks English well and wasn’t shy about using a translation app on his phone while seeking the exact word to convey a thought.
Snowmass is an expansive resort and he believes Aspen Skiing Co. has done well to position itself to attract intermediates and beginners. He acknowledged the Snowmass terrain was a bit tame compared with what he is used to, but he found the tree skiing “incredible.” The slopes at Chamonix are steep and mostly barren.
The best memory, he said, was the reception he received from the Snowmass Ski Patrol this winter.
“Very good welcoming from my team,” he said.
Both men said they enjoyed hiking and skiing Highland Bowl on their days off. A previous exchange patroller from Chamonix said hiking the Bowl and absorbing the view of the Maroon Bells and surrounding peak reminded him of the Alps.
Cofian, 30, said the slopes of Snowmass resemble Bariloche — vast and not so steep. He liked Aspen Mountain.
“I like it because it’s quiet,” he said.
Day explained that the bed bases at Bariloche and Chamonix are much bigger than at Aspen-Snowmass. If the upper Roaring Fork Valley can accommodate maybe 35,000 people at peak times, Bariloche is at 50,000 and Chamonix at 100,000, she said. While not all of those visitors hit the slopes, it does make for busier times.
Cofian said a lot of skiers head out of bounds at Bariloche and seek out cliff-jumping.
Like Cappa, Cofian said he felt welcomed in Aspen. He had his wife and son with him for the winter.
Day said ski patrollers make very little money in Argentina, so working in Aspen was an economic boon for him.
In prior interviews between Aspen Times reporters and patrollers from Chamonix, it was clear that avalanche control is a major, grueling part of their job.
“Snow is very different in Europe and Chamonix,” Cappa said, drawing the contrast to the light Rocky Mountain snow that is susceptible to sliding when the base layer weakens.
They have maritime snow, extremely steep slopes and couloirs that spill onto the piste just above the towns. The conditions can be quite stable and conducive to out-of-bounds skiing early in the day, then become avalanche-prone as temperatures rise later in the day.
They have to be careful that their control work doesn’t trigger avalanches that bury parts of the towns. They often use helicopters for their control work.
Day said the heavier snow there requires bigger charges.
“We use 2-pound charges here. They use 5-pound charges,” she said.
Day has done the exchange two seasons to Chamonix, in 1996 and 2008. Cappa said regular contact with skiing customers isn’t a big part of the patrol’s job in Chamonix, except in case of injury. Day said skiers at Chamonix might plop down on a slope such as Spar Gulch, one of Aspen Mountain’s busiest, to enjoy a glass of wine. They would get annoyed if patrol stopped to see if they were all right, she said.
Both exchange patrollers said they are used to working with much smaller teams than they worked with at Aspen Mountain and Snowmass. The Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board sets minimum patrol staffing requirements at the state’s resorts, according to Day.
In addition to smaller staff sizes, patrollers in France must pass tests and earn their national certification.
“Everything is more clear cut,” Cappa said. Here, he noted, there is more opportunity to learn on the job.
Saturday was the last day on the job for Cappa at Snowmass. He will return to France, where he spends the summer as a hiking and biking guide at his own business. His significant other and son were able to visit once during the winter, but he misses them, he said.
Cofian will work through closing day at Aspen Mountain, which is April 21. Like prior patrollers from Bariloche, he will return to patrolling both there and, later, at Andorra, a country in the Pyrenees bordered by Spain and France.
“No break. All skiing,” he said with a smile.
Dan Berg of Snowmass Ski Patrol is wrapping up an exchange winter in Chamonix. Aspen Highlands patroller Luke DeMuth is heading to Bariloche in June.
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