Brits abroad generally love to moan about their inability to master any language other than English. In winter you can add an ironic pride in the UK’s inability to manage snow: “Isn’t it marvellous how everything keeps running?” is the standard British refrain greeting the first snowflake they see in the Alps.
Much mystique surrounds central European competence in these matters as though locals are born with studs in the soles of their feet (which would be painful for all concerned) and a superhuman ability to withstand the cold...
In fact, it’s all about the right gear, from a proper hat and coat, to the tyres you put on your car. In mountain regions, every local car is equipped with winter tyres – much more important for getting around when the road turns white than four-wheel drive, and rendering pesky things like chains all but redundant. Without them, no-one would even get out of their driveway, never mind up a hill. They’re not normally studded (you’re not welcome on dry motorways) but have a tread pattern and soft rubber which in combination give astonishing grip on most types of snow. Pure ice remains tricky (though seldom coats the road over big areas) and it’s worth knowing that in general, the closer any snow or ice is to melting, the slipperier it is, so taking it easy in slush is a good plan.
Then there are the roads themselves. Though frequently ascending fearsome heights, they tend to do so in sinuous loops of hairpins, sometimes dramatically ‘stacked’ above each other to climb like a ladder up near-vertical sections of mountainside. The steepest point on any such climb may not even approach half that of Britain’s notorious Hardknot Pass, which has sections of 1 in 3, or over 30%. That would be impossible in deep snow on anything other than a snowmobile.
Whatever you’re driving, on whichever road, you won’t get far if there are huge depths of snow blocking your way. Alpine snow clearing machinery, whether that of the big boys on the main roads, ploughing or milling their way through vast drifts, or the domestic version – powerful petrol driven contraptions like old-fashioned mowers – is vital. It’s serious kit which has to be used both during and after big snowfalls – let too much build up and the problems just compound themselves. But of course this kind of provision is only worth it when proper snow is likely to be a regular occurrence. The trusty snow shovel, which works, muscles-permitting, to clear your drive even after being in the shed for five fallow years might not have the same rate of snow-shifting potential, but it does make sense when the white stuff occurs ‘if’ rather than ‘when’.
There are plenty of rules in the Alps about what you can do with your hard-dug snow: chucking it from your driveway into the road for the plough to sweep up would seem a perfect solution, except that it’s normally illegal. The plough, on the other hand, has the right (in parts of south-west Switzerland, at least) to push all the snow off the road to the downhill side of the slope. If your parking space or driveway happens to be on that side, too, that’s just tough…
Of course, it’s not just what’s on the floor that matters. Though it appears almost as light as air as it falls, snow can weigh anything from 70-150 kilograms per cubic metre to upwards of 900 kilograms when very old and compressed – at which point it is close to the weight of ice and a good depth of it might very well knock your house down. So in various parts of the world home owners clamber onto the roof to knock the snow off. Timing is everything: before your house collapses, obviously, but not so soon that you have to do it again almost immediately. It should be obvious why you wouldn’t want to do it more than you absolutely have to.
The scope for things going wrong is vast, and Laurel and Hardy-like. There’s the obvious banana skin: knocking a mini-avalanche onto the head of a passer-by, closely followed by the shoveller themselves getting swept off the eaves (their fall, if they were in a cartoon, being broken by the unfortunate person below). But the trick that takes the cake – all the better for being unexpected – allegedly involves making the mistake of shovelling from the ridge downwards, leaving so much weight on the overhanging eaves that the roof opens up like a nuclear silo, but instead of unleashing a missile it ejects the shoveller. Adding potential injury to insult, they get dumped to the ground in one smooth action, along with the remaining snow, into – if Laurel or Hardy are still involved – a huge pile of snow, from which to be comically extracted.