With a 78 percent grade, the thrilling double black Harakiri Trail rakes in hard-core honours for being Austria’s steepest downhill run. This sickeningly steep terrain requires a special winch cat to groom, which is driven by heavy machinery operator Christoph Egger.
It is 5:00pm and wispy clouds glow like firecrackers in almost-sunset light over Penken Mountain. The last skiers have rolled off their last ski run and the chair lifts and gondolas sit still. Christoph Egger climbs into his massive, machinated beast of a snowcat, releases the brake and heads up the mountain toward Harakiri. I ask him if he always wanted to become a ski slope groomer. “My granddad was a groomer and he took me along in the snowcat when I was a child. Growing up at the mountain instilled my interest,” says the 28-year-old Zillertal-native.
Toys for Boys
Christoph Egger is tweaking joysticks in both hands to make the snowcat and its parts move. The engine of his massive beast is 430 horsepower and it weighs in at 9 tons. The snowcat flattens and packs the snow and dropping the tiller behind leaves a perfect corduroy strip. “This is a love it or hate it kind of job. It’s a very big and powerful piece of equipment and it requires feel and instinct to operate,” says the groomer.
Christoph navigates us to the top of Harakiri, where super-steep terrain awaits and a sign warns skiers. I can spot some footprints on the edge of the slope, a proof that some skiers have turned back and left this no-fear zone for expert skiers and boarders. There Christoph stops the snowcat and gets out. He hooks the winch on the groomer up to a concrete post at the top of the run. The winch is to help control the snowcat up and down a resort’s steepest ski slopes, which are too steep for even a burly snowcat to maintain traction without extra support. The steel cable is 1,000 meters long.
Grooming the Ski Area’s Steepest Slope in a Winch Cat
Off we go. It’s somewhat like dropping off a cliff. At the top break-over as the machine teeters above the brink towards Harakiri Run, it feels like falling forward out of the seat. It’s only the buckle of the seatbelt that pushes me back into my seat. The cat tilts forward into the darkness. “Driving a winch cat is getting easier with time,” explains Christoph Egger. At the bottom of the run, while the snowcat is still connected to the top of the trail, we turn around and head back up for another pass. “As a skier skies downhill on the Harakiri, it takes the snow that was at the top and pushes it to the bottom. We use the winch to pull the snow back up to the top, which maintains the vertical.”
Grooming the Harakiri run, at a sickeningly steep angle, requires lots of concentration. Being able to operate a winch cat and be efficient, pay attention to detail, and leave a good product takes time and skill to accomplish. The most dangerous part is when the angle and snow beat the winch’s traction. If the steel cable broke, it might result in a catastrophe. “Someone who is new to the grooming team is put through a decent amount of training; a majority of which is hands on. Rookie operators only ride in company. If they don’t show talent or instinct with execution they are not accepted. The snowcats are simply too expensive.”
A Dream Job if you Love Working at Night
Now it’s late and velvety dark has swallowed the slopes, save for the snowcat’s headlight beams, which lead the way uphill, then downhill, then uphill again. Stars shine brightly through the black night’s calm. “I love working into the late night. It’s great. And plus, I can go skiing during the day,” Christoph tells me.
Each member of the grooming crew at Mayrhofen Ski Resort is responsible for a particular section of the mountain. Apart from the Harakiri, Christoph Egger has to push and till the snow on dozens of ski runs into the corduroy that sounds like a zipper under-ski. Grooming takes long top-to-bottom passes on each run. The night shift usually lasts until Midnight, and afterwards he often has a beer with his co-workers. The feeling of camaraderie here is strong, too. “I have the best job,” concludes the groomer from Zillertal Valley.
Photo & Video Credits: Bert Heinzlmeier