White Gold Fairytale • John Vink • Magnum Photos

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White Gold Fairytale

John Vink explores how the Alpine mountain village of St Sorlin is keeping the ski trade alive amid rising global temperatures

John Vink

John Vink A 'langlauf' skier climbs a mountain. Saint Sorlin D'Arves (Savoie), France. 2017. © John Vink | Magnum Photos

Saint-Sorlin-d’Arves is a commune in the Savoie department in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region in south-eastern France. It is a traditional Maurienne mountain village with just 350 permanent inhabitants. The local economy relies upon the tourists looking to ski the snow-topped mountains. However, of late, the area has suffered a lack of snow, which many are attributing to rising global temperatures. John Vink visited to explore how inhabitants are using technology in order to maintain the ski trade. He penned this report:

John Vink This ski resort located at an altitude of 1600 meters saw very little snowfall. Saint Sorlin D'Arves (Savoie), France. 2017. © John Vink | Magnum Photos

Once upon a time, but not that long ago, snowfall was abundant in the Alps. Villagers were mostly confined to their home during the long winter months and local economy in the high valleys of the Alps came to standstill. In the 1930s well-off tourists from the plains ventured to the higher valleys and started tracing tracks on the virgin slopes with skis. A small, but mainly luxurious, infrastructure was set up little by little, catering to the needs of the visitors from the plains. It benefited those villagers in the high altitude villages who otherwise basically had to spend the winter waiting for it to end. They could make good money as guides or hotel and restaurant staff. Mountain tourism during the winter was born.

John Vink Poles indicate dangerous areas along a ski trail. Saint Sorlin D'Arves (Savoie), France. 2017. © John Vink | Magnum Photos
John Vink The lack of snow exposes the pastures where cows graze in the summer. Saint Sorlin D'Arves (Savoie), France. 2017. © John Vink | Magnum Photos

Then, in the 1970s, democratization of the slopes set in. The number of visitors wanting to enjoy the whizzing sound of their skis increased thousand fold. A long-term investment in infrastructure to provide the pleasure of snow sports to the masses had to grow likewise. Hotels, restaurants, mechanical ski lifts were built with millions of Euros. Over a time period of only two generations the inhabitants of the valleys saw the additional income to their traditional economic structure shift towards a total dependency on the tourism industry and to its prime ingredient: snow.

John Vink Skiers enjoy the sunshine during a lunch break on the higher altitude slopes. Saint Sorlin D'Arves (Savoie), France. 2017. © John Vink | Magnum Photos

As it turns out, for the past few years, there has been less snow, very likely because of shifting meteorological patterns linked to global warming. Take Saint Sorlin d’Arves, located at an altitude of 1600m, it boasts a total of 40 tracks totaling 120km, out of which only 11 are available during this winter season due to the lack of snow. Out of the 16 various types of mechanical lifts, 6 are closed.

John Vink A snow leveller from the track maintenance team returns to base at dawn, after having finished its shift which started at 4:00 AM. Saint Sorlin D'Arves (Savoie), France. 2017. © John Vink | Magnum Photos
John Vink The municipality of this ski resort has invested heavily in an irrigation system to feed the snow canons which allow skiing when snow coverage is low. Saint Sorlin D'Arves (Savoie), France. 2017. © John Vink | Magnum Photos

The continuous lack of snow has forced the municipality of Saint Sorlin d’Arves and the company which runs the domain to invest even more in infrastructure to keep the ski addicts coming and maintain the livelihood of its 380 inhabitants and seasonal workers. Some 227 snow cannons, connected with a complex water pipe system, were installed along the tracks, but they can only operate under freezing temperatures. It has 9 snow levelers, all made in Germany or Italy.

John Vink Skiers head to the slopes in a free shuttle bus provided by the municipality. Saint Sorlin D'Arves (Savoie), France. 2017. © John Vink | Magnum Photos
John Vink A member of the ski tracks maintenance team attaches the cable of his levelling tractor to the winch of another machine used as an anchor. Saint Sorlin D'Arves (Savoie), France. 2017. © John Vink | Magnum Photos

The operators of the snow levelers, mostly heavy machinery operators during the summer, start their shift at 4:00 AM, providing a spotless and smooth experience for the skiers when the tracks open at 9:00 AM. The full length of the available tracks are covered every night by the men in the powerful machines, communicating by radio and guided by GPS based maps displayed in the comfortable heated cabins. With their fingertips on the buttons of two command sticks they push heaps of snow generated by the snow cannons to open new tracks or level existing ones. On the back of the machine there is a milling wheel to soften the snow and a sort of carpet to smooth the surface, leaving behind a treat for spoiled skiers. The operators also check on the quality of snow generated by the cannons, based on the brilliance of the snow in their headlights. By sunrise they return to the base at the foot of the mechanical lifts, in time for the track security teams to check on remaining issues. By 9:00 AM, the panels in the village with a map of all the tracks lights up with green or red lights. A day of skiing fun can start.

John Vink Snow levellers from the track maintenance team return to base at dawn, after having finished their shift which started at 4:00 AM. Saint Sorlin D'Arves (Savoie), France. 2017. © John Vink | Magnum Photos