Mountains and sea. Dogs and dynamite. Meet determined British ski patroller Caroline Elliot who has made her dream job happen in the French Pyrenees
At 6am I start the day with porridge, made with jumbo oats and sultanas – I can’t do croissants or pains au chocolat like the French. Fjord, my flat-coated retriever, has his winter portion of dog biscuits. We drive to Laruns, a village en route to the ski resort of Gourette, for 6.30am, where there’s a bus and 4x4s to take the staff up to work.
I’m a patroller and rescue dog handler at Gourette, which has 33km of pistes and was the first ski resort set up in the French Pyrenees. I came to the area 10 years ago because I wanted to be near sea as well as mountains – the coast around Biarritz and Hossegor is about 70 miles from Pau, where I live. Before settling there I’d spent time in Australia, and back in Europe I was looking for space, rather than the crushed sensation of the UK.
We’re a team of 12 – four of us women – and generally each day four patrollers are on duty in each of the two sectors, Cotch and Pène Blanque. There are various avalanche-prone areas and from where Fjord and me are based, the Pène Blanque side, we can get to both easily.
I’m among those qualified to set off avalanches on snowy mornings before the lifts open. We start this at 7am; Fjord stays at the bottom while we go up by piste basher. Each pair of us is given an area to make safe. In sensitive areas the resort uses the Gazex, tubes set remotely to blast using oxygen and propane gas; the ‘pyrotechnicien’ patrollers mix two substances together at designated points and set off the charge; or there are ‘avalancheur’ cannons where the charge is put under a certain amount of pressure depending on the target. A newish addition is the Daisybell, a ‘cloche’/bell attached via a winch to a helicopter to set off charges in areas not within the reach of any of other bits of blasting kit. Some of the guys get a kick out of the blasting but to me it’s just part of the job.
After avalanche control we open the ski runs. I prefer to open greens and blues so Fjord can come with me. Running down a black isn’t good for him and could lead to arthritis one day. I put up signs or poles to show danger and check piste markers are in place. Once the slope is open Fjord isn’t allowed there, so I take him to his kennel. It was built for him at the beginners’ area ‘Happy Place’, next to the bubble car, which he has learnt to ride by himself.
On the Pène Blanque side we don’t have a ski patrol base, but over the course of the day we shelter in the lifties’ huts if we need to – it’s a bit rough and ready. At 9.30 I have a coffee in one of the cafes before heading to the weather station, which is next to the snow-making factory.
I’m trained as a weather reporter and twice a day I spend up to 45 minutes observing clouds, temperature, wind, snow crystals and so on, then use a code system to ring that info into the weather station at the Météo France base in Uzein, near Pau, where it goes into a national system.
I got Fjord in 2010, after I’d been a patroller for three years. I had a border collie as a child and always thought I’d have a dog when I was settled. In the summer of 2007 I joined the fire brigade as a voluntary firefighter. When I went to observe their fire and rescue dog team in Pau they said they’d like someone based in the mountains with a rescue dog: there was no holding me back and I went for it!
They advised me to choose a flat-coated retriever, which is easier to control than a German or Belgian shepherd dog. He comes from a breeder in north-east France, and has turned out to be very placid – he’ll even sit and watch fireworks. But when he’s working he’s manic. He started training at three months old and when he was two years and two months we went to Les 2 Alpes for a three-week intensive training course with ANENA – the Association Nationale de l’Etude de le Neige et Avalanches – and completed the qualifications. I’m not sure if there are other Brits who have done the French dog-handler exams.
Training as ski patrol
I’ve nearly always worked in skiing. I learnt in Méribel aged 10, and at 18 I started freestyle – jumping and ballet, training with Richard Cobbing, who was an Olympic medallist; I didn’t take it seriously but I competed at national level. At university I did languages and got involved in the uni ski club, then I worked at Neustift in Austria as an instructor. I later worked for Snow and Rock, and for Skiworld, organising their Alpine competitions for the military.
I wanted to do my ski patrol qualification in France, but I wasn’t accepted on the course because my address was in England. A couple of years later, when working for the ski school in Thredbo, Australia, I trained with the ski patrol on days off. Back in France my Australian qualification wasn’t accepted, so I went from A to Z again, via the French system.
The technical ski test includes a run through gates, plus an off-piste descent that you have to complete in a certain time, showing certain variations in turns. Then there’s a week’s course in mountain knowledge, plus learning to bring down the stretcher and so on, which lasts three weeks. Not forgetting the two weeks’ first aid. I did my ski tests at Arcalis, and trained in Pal Arinsal, Andorra – alongside Chileans and Argentines.
Finding work at a small resort like Gourette is hard as most jobs go to locals, who historically have been shepherds – even someone from Bordeaux is considered foreign. I started there as an animatrice (organiser) for the beginners’ ski area, thanks to my languages. Soon afterwards the ski patrol director said I could have the next job that came up on his team, and I lucked out the following season.
Much of the job involves going round putting things back in their place, advising the public and responding to anyone in trouble. Medical evacuations are usually knees for skiers and shoulders and wrists for snowboarders; the snowpark gives us a few evacuations each winter. The injured are taken to the medical centre in the resort then if necessary by ambulance to Pau. More serious cases are evacuated by helicopter to Pau, Bordeaux or Toulouse.
I take my hour’s lunch break at the lifties’ and patrollers’ refectory. I heat up a box of whatever I’ve made for dinner the night before – usually pasta or rice and vegetables – in the microwave. In winter I turn into an eating machine and don’t put on weight; being outside in cold, harsh weather and on the move the whole time burns calories!
Twice a day I pass by Fjord’s kennel to let him out. Occasionally it causes conflict with my colleagues – “What’s she doing with the dog again?” – but he needs to have a pee and stretch his legs, just like we do. Some days I take him out for an hour or so to show school groups what a ski patroller does in a typical day and the role of a rescue dog.
We finish at 5.30 after shutting the mountain and doing a final sweep of the runs. Sometimes we find funny things, like a skier with a bare foot who hadn’t done up one boot tight enough and had lost boot, sock and ski and was walking down the mountain. If anyone’s in trouble we collect them with one of the ski stretchers or if it’s flat enough with the motor scooter. Fjord comes down with me for the last run.
Last season, major things happened as we had a lot of snow. An avalanche wiped out a chairlift and we had an awful case involving a family from Pau. They were on a road that’s famous from the Tour de France – it was closed but they went on foot and an avalanche swept them away. Thirty of us were looking for them (I’m linked in via the fire brigade mountain rescue unit when an incident is out of the resort and on my day off). My colleague and his dog from Oloron identified where some family members were. All escaped alive but one girl was buried for two hours, 2m under, and her body temperature was down to 30˚C when she was dug out, so she was especially lucky.
This winter I’m getting involved in courses to help people be more mountain-aware, such as the HAT avalanche courses. I say to kids if you had a choice between a GoPro and a transceiver, which would you pick? I know of a kid with no transceiver who set off a slab outside the skiing area and was killed, his head-cam filming it all.
After work I take Fjord for at least a half-hour walk then I stretch and put my feet in the air to drain away potential aches. I take a bath and chill, read, write or watch TV. I make my dinner of carbs with fish or veg; maybe bulgur wheat with salmon.
We have two days off a week, and when it’s less busy, we may have extra days. That’s when I sleep, go ski touring or do ongoing training with Fjord. I go ski touring with a couple of guys from work, one of whom is a mountain guide. I like to go with people who are more experienced than I am. The Pyrenees are more untamed than the Alps, with many untouched areas and endless possibilities on powder days. Also, you can mix activities – surf one day, ski the next. The whole district is much more rustic – and particularly Gourette, which is quite the opposite of a ski factory.
Photos | Philippe Padelli & Jean Michel Morlot