If you’ve ever wondered who gets to drive the monstrous machines that leave ski runs smooth and velvety, this is your chance to find out. In some of Tirol’s ski resorts, you can accompany a groomer driver on real trails, and learn about the process from a pro. I met the person behind the corduroy and experienced the life of a groomer for myself.
At 4:15pm, I meet snow groomer Leo at the base of Schönjochbahn Gondola in Fiss. The gondola sits still, Leo asks me who my parents are and fires up his Kässbohrer PistenBully Polar 600, ready to spring into action. I’m not actually scared, but quite nervous :)
Off We Go! The Challenge is to Create Good Runs
Leo needs to be focused. When the ski slope groomer teams start preparing and polishing the snow, there are still skiers making their last run. Heading up-mountain toward Kerbboden Run, the snow cat grooms hard-packed snow. There’s a constant hum of 500 horses doing their thing in the engine. “Driving and operating the machine is not difficult. The challenge is to create good runs and to find a way to make the snow longer skiable.”
Snow grooming is hard work with warm temperatures. The snow groomer operators then first need to bring the snow back up the slope using the blade at the front of the machine. In the final step, the tiller’s comb leaves the velvety corduroy behind. A measuring instrument in the cockpit shows the depth of the snowpack and where the driver needs to work out a kink in the snow. The backup camera is of no use today as it is snowed in.
Up and Down the Slopes, Fixed with Cables and Supported by a Winch
The Serfaus-Fiss-Ladis ski resort has a fleet of 34 snow grooming machines, which manicure the mountain’s groomed runs and prepare them for the next day of skiing every night. Each member of the grooming crew is responsible for a particular section of the mountain. Leo operates a specialty machine that can winch on extremely steep terrain. Fixed with cables and supported by the winch, the grooming machine can climb steep slopes, push heavily compacted snow and leave a seamless trail of corduroy in its wake. It also helps push the snow back up the slope, which would be impossible with a traditional groomer. This consists of gathering up as much of the snow as possible that that has fallen down to the bottom of the slope, and bringing it back up to the top. This job requires plenty of experience and lots of concentration, but Leo makes it all look easy.
No Snow Nook Left Untouched
Leo has been working as a snow grooming operator at the Serfaus-Fiss-Ladis Ski Resort for eight winter seasons. At the age of 50, he is the oldest member of the crew. Some of the other operators have more than 15 years of experience, tough. There’s a lot of teamwork on the hill, a sort of unspoken language and effortless efficiency after working together for years. There’s not much of a need for chatting as each crew member makes a pass on the run, leaving no snow nook untouched. “We have a crew here that really takes pride in their work,” Leo tells me. Plus, the guys here are a lot of fun, too—they sing along to schlager hits over the radio. Leo is used to that, he says with a laugh.
What he likes most about his job, is that he can work independently. “I just love producing a good product for the skiers.” And he also appreciates his working times—he manages to squeeze in 70 to 80 ski touring adventures each winter! Leo usually starts working at 4:00pm and continues after dinner, which is enjoyed together with the crew at 9:00pm. Depending on snow cover, the night shift lasts until 01:00 or 02:00am. It takes some six hours for the snow to freeze over again for that perfect corduroy in the next morning.
His Life is a Cycle: On the Slopes in the Winter, on the Alpine Pastures in the Summer
What do guests who accompany him on a ride usually ask? Leo tells me that they want to learn about technical details of the machine and about the grooming process. And they ask him what he does for a living in the summer. Leo’s life is a cycle: working on the Alpine pasture hut in the summer and, when it turns colder, heading up to Serfaus-Fiss-Ladis Ski Resort to groom the slopes each night. For more than ten years, Leo was the innkeeper at Hohenzollernhaus Lodge near Pfunds. Since last summer, he has been working as an Alpine herdsman. He loves this seasonal cycle – it makes his life more interesting. Topics covered with his guests in the cockpit range from politics and economy to women :).
During our ride, we stop occasionally and Leo fixes the cable at various locations next to the slope. He is paying attention to the cable and is mastering the blade and tiller skilfully. We’re jostled around before heading up over the first hilltop and I hold my breath for a second. But Leo is a very skilled operator and the ride is great fun. Blue hour has long passed. Little can be seen except what’s under the cat’s bright spotlights as we continue down the side of the mountain. Leo brings me back to the gondola base. He has still a lot of work to do, travelling up and down the slopes moving, flattening and packing down the snow creating a high quality skiing surface ready for the next day.