Smashing through barriers is pretty easy for the tank-like piste bashers that groom the ski runs of Tignes. But it’s a barrier of another kind that Sarah Summers has broken through – becoming the first ever female piste basher mechanic in the Savoie.
It’s not that much of a leap for the 28-year-old, who spent 8 years as a helicopter engineer in the Royal Navy – another male-dominated job, though more women are now entering the role – before moving to Tignes last year.
But, working in France she also had the language barrier to tackle as well as fitting into an established all-male team and working in a typical garage environment where pictures of topless models take up any wall space that isn’t covered by tools.
Fortunately, none of this phased Sarah, who says: “I’ve always seemed to prefer working in a male environment. The type of work I do you need to just get on with it and be practical. The guys will help if they see me struggling but they don’t treat me any differently and I just get on with whatever job I’m doing. When I first arrived it was strange for the men – they’ve not had a female on the team before, but they were quite interested. It’s a nice change for them.”
In fact, team boss Marc is enthusiastic about the benefits having a woman on board has brought – though Sarah’s military-honed skills and talent for the job are the main reasons she’s become a central member of the 4-man (well… 3 men, 1 woman) team.
He says: “I prefer to employ ex-military people as I know they’re disciplined, on the ball and safety conscious. I was a vehicle mechanic in the French military and worked with women there. For me, there’s no difference between women and men. Sarah is very thorough and a great addition to the team. People from other services are very curious about her.”
Sarah realised she was something of a novelty on one of the first training days she attended for mechanics from across the Savoie: “I was a bit of a celebrity; everyone was telling me I was the first female piste basher mechanic in the region, possibly further.”
So how did the girl from Liverpool end up living the dream, taking girl power to the mountains?
After skiing Tignes during the Navy Ski Championships she kept coming back for holidays before quitting the Navy to make a life here full time. Knowing any job was going to require an ability to speak French she booked herself straight in for an intensive course, living with a non-English speaking family until she had the basics. In her team of 4 men, only Marc speaks any English at all, so being able to communicate in French turned out to be vital. She then sent her CV to dozens of organisations, including the pisteurs, on spec but they had no jobs going. A couple of months later she got an email from Marc asking if she was still interested. Of course she was.
Since starting work in the garage she’s taken some ribbing from her co-workers – but not about her gender. Sarah says: “There was some laughing just because at first my French wasn’t that good. In my first week I was feeling hot and told the team ‘phew, je suis chaud’ – but in French it doesn’t just mean you’re temperature is hot, it means you’re horny!”
But the team work well together and Sarah is obviously loving the job despite its hazards. The group haven’t had any serious injuries – though Sarah has had one unusual mishap: “One injury I did get happened when I was hammering a bearing out of a wheel. A piece of tubing broke off and I thought it had just hit me on the head. But later it felt like there was something under the skin and as a joke someone suggested I put a magnet to my head to see if there was metal in there. To my surprise the magnet stuck, and it took me half an hour to prise the nugget out from my forehead.” As in any job, a sense of humour is one of the most important skills you can have.
It’s not often you get the chance to go behind the scenes of this operation that’s so vital to the running of the resort, so I made sure I got the full tour and went into full-on questioning mode. Sarah walked me through a typical day in the garage…
The first thing the team do in the morning is check the tray with fault slips left by the night drivers. Some days there are none, other days lots to go through and prioritise. There are 15 piste bashers in Tignes – 10 standard, 5 with a winch so it can be attached to the steepest slopes – plus 8 skidoos. And it’s not just a winter job – they’re used in summer too up on the Grande Motte glacier, farming and grooming the snow for summer skiing and preservation of the glacier. If a basher is broken down on the piste that’s the first priority – to go and get it. If it has to be driven down when a piste is open it’ll be escorted by pisteurs in a skidoo to make sure people are out of the way – these are dangerous machines and you’d be in trouble if you found yourself under its tracks. The main problems with the machines are broken tracks and hydraulic leaks – keeping the fleet running involves using 5,500 litres of bio-oil fuel each day.
Driving the piste bashers is a tricky business. Sarah allowed me to have a go taking one of the beasts up and down a practice piste next to their Val Claret garage. The most important thing is to be properly strapped in, especially if you’re coming down a slope. Some are so steep you find yourself dangling from your seatbelt with your foot on the windscreen to steady you. Sarah told me: “Driving one for the first time was interesting. The control direction joysticks are very sensitive, they just need small, very gentle movements with the fingers. The first time I tried it I gave the boss whiplash. There are a lot of things to control at the same time – the blade at the front and tiller at the back too – but they’re great fun.”
Fixing piste bashers, skidoos and other machines is physical and sometimes dangerous work – plus here in the mountains you’ve got the added dimension that you can be doing it on a glacier as a blizzard howls around you. Sarah says: “I once had to dig the tracks that had come off a piste basher out of the snow next to it, then try to put them back on in -20 degrees with wind and snow. Another member of the team had to get to the top of the glacier to fix a basher – it should have been a half hour job, but it took 4 hours because of 150km winds and -25 degree temperature.”
Fortunately, Sarah is not one to give up easily. Paving the way for herself and other women, she’s got herself to the top of the mountain and now the sky’s the limit.
Can girls fix piste bashers? This girl can.