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Piste Perfectionists

Piste Perfectionists

Piste Perfectionists

During night-time operations in the Bregenzerwald region’s expansive ski resorts, tough men and their heavy equipment ensure optimally groomed slopes in the morning (Damüls-Mellau, Diedamskopf and Warth-Schröcken). Best of all they love the work!

The very last skier has vacated the slopes, the final snowboarder of the day has unbuckled her board, and the silence on the ski slopes in Damüls-Mellau is total. The now abandoned slopes are decorated in criss-cross tracks, evidence of every turn and every edge that has left its mark over the course of the day. And then, as if on queue, the silence is broken by the rumbling of an approaching snow groomer.

Herbert Rüf has come to tidy up his pistes, to straighten his hills, to cover over the tracks. And when his work is done, he’ll leave behind immaculate, perfectly even, corrugated bliss for tomorrow’s skiers and snowboarders to enjoy.

Anchored above the “Hahnenkopf” slope in Damüls-Mellau

Herbert Rüf has worked as a snow groomer operator for 38 winter seasons. In summer, the seasoned Alpine dairyman lives on his Alpine pasture with his wife Barbara and their many goats, calves and cows. In the shadow of the Sunnegg chairlift, during winter Rüf patrols the “Hahnenkopf,” a slope so difficult it might as well be rated dark black. With a gradient of up to seventy percent, it’s one of the ski resort’s steepest slopes. So that he can trust in his equipment in this extreme terrain, he thoroughly inspects his snow groomer before every shift. He checks to make sure his winch cable is still intact and inspects the hydraulic system to ensure everything is in working order. Then and only then does his evening truly begin.

He first ascends the slope at a leisurely pace along the flat alternate routes. Once at the very top, he attaches his winch cable to an anchor that sticks out of the snow in the middle of the slope. He then sets up a flashing light as a warning. After all, the steel cable is virtually invisible in the gathering darkness and can pose a serious hazard to night-time ski tourers. With the winch attached and the light flashing, he descends over the edge and down the slope.

“When conditions are really icy, the weight of the entire snow groomer hangs on the winch,” explains Rüf making his way down while attached to the anchor point. Not to worry, however: The entire operation isn’t particularly dangerous, he insists. Once at the bottom of the slope, he readies himself and his equipment to push the snow back up hill, returning it “back into place” with the three-part blade. As a final step, the snow groomer leaves behind fine, regular corrugations in the snow’s glistening surface.

Changeable conditions are one of the many challenges of working in the snow. Powder snow, for example, is the easiest to handle while wet snow requires a herculean effort to manoeuvre. Although skiers and snowboarders zip downhill in virtually any weather conditions, the weather forecast dictates whether the snow is groomed in the morning or the evening: “If it snows overnight, we have to prepare the slopes for the following morning. If conditions remain stable, we can do our work the evening before so that the slope can harden overnight,” explains the Bregenzerwald native.

After work on the first slope is complete, it’s time for dinner. The snow-groomer drivers mingle with the guests of the Damüls-Mellau ski resort for an hour or so. Afterwards, they groom the slopes until they are picture perfect. Typically these labours last until two in the morning, which is no problem for Rüf: “I don’t mind working nights because it allows me to be home during the day. Such a schedule has its advantages too.”

Ideal for families and freeriders

Hundreds of kilometres of slopes and a variety of different runs: What more could winter sports fans ask for? The skiing and snowboarding fun never ends for families in the Damüls-Mellau ski resort, which features modern lifts, a 10-passenger gondola lift, and two illuminated ski tunnels. Fear not, the tunnel slopes downhill so you don’t have to worry about opposing traffic! The resort, featuring the largest snow park in Vorarlberg, is a paradise for freeriders. “The location is ideal because you don’t have to drive too deep into the valley,” says Snow-Park Head Alton, explaining the success of the ski resort, especially with day tourists. “You can park comfortably in Mellau and arrive to the slopes in just six minutes by gondola.”

Ascending the Diedamskopf ski slopes with 520 HP

Christian Gasser also has a night shift ahead of him. The final stage of his trip to work is with the Diedamskopf cable car. With his ski gear over his shoulder, he enters the snow groomer garage and parks his equipment in the corner (he will need it later). This evening Gasser has arrived a bit early as this is no ordinary night shift: tonight he will be driving a brand new snow groomer for the first time! When he arrives, the snow groomer mechanic is still in the garage: “Servus Mathias! What’s up?” says Gasser to his colleague. After a short review of the current conditions, Gasser is finally introduced to the evening’s star attraction: A brand-new snow groomer boasting an astounding 520 hp, weighing in at 13.2 tons, and featuring the surface area of a small garage.

Featuring the very latest technology, it’s the envy of every snow groomer driver. In addition to the blade, the continuous track system, winch and tiller, the machine also has a GPS tracker and snow altimeter. The latest technology helps drivers to prepare the slopes perfectly, even if there is little ground cover because the system recognises snow holes, drifts and dangerously low snow depths at a glance on the screen.

A snow groomer of this magnitude consumes around 250 litres of diesel during an average night’s work. Two diesel filling stations at the Diedamskopf mountain station ensure that the drivers have sufficient fuel for the entire season. Such an amazing machine has its price, of course: around half a million euros! One by one, Gasser’s troop arrives and their shift begins. Together, the six members of the team are responsible for 45 kilometres of slopes. During this shift, Gasser is the “jumper,” which means that he’s responsible for preparing particularly steep or low-snow areas with his new groomer.

According to Gasser, to be an effective snow groomer operator, you have to be responsible, creative, and capable of developing a feeling for the machine: “While grooming, I always put myself in the boots of the skier and try to imagine the conditions they would prefer to find in the morning.” There is no training course for snow groomers: “Everyone gets thrown in at the deep end” and you learn by testing, asking questions and observing. Gasser started driving snow groomers seven years ago. As a ski instructor, the ski boot was on the other foot and he spent time thinking about how best to sculpt the slopes. “But you learn quickly that many things are not as easy as you imagined,” he says with a laugh. It was precisely this challenge, the variety and working conditions in the high mountains that captivated him. “During my first season, I worked my way up to grooming the black slopes and I haven’t looked back since,” explains Gasser, who heads the young team at the Diedamskopf ski resort. “I really love my job!” At the end of the late shift, after the snow groomers have been attended to and all lights have been turned off, the trained ski instructor and his team ski down into the valley together. This gives them them a first look at the quality of their labours. Once everyone has arrived safely, they sit together for a beer after work.

The Diedamskopf ski resort:
Powder snow and funpark

Over 2,000 m elevation and powder snow everywhere: The mountain station of the gondola lift is located just below the summit of the Diedamskopf mountain. From the panorama terrace of the mountain restaurant, marvel at the nearly 300 peaks bathed in sunlight. But why just look when you can get moving? Here there are perfectly groomed slopes at all levels of difficulty to be enjoyed. Even expert skiers will enjoy the challenge: Descending 1,200 metres on ten kilometres of slopes down into the valley is pure joy. For freestylers, the slopes are less of a priority. They instead prefer to twist and turn through the air and over 35 ramps and kickers at the Diedams Funpark. Then, of course, there are those for whom the sign-posted slopes merely indicate where they don’t want to ski. “The powder-rich slopes on the Diedamskopf mountain are amongst the most beautiful I know,” says enthusiastic ski-tourer and back-country skiing enthusiast Thomas Dietrich from Mellau. “The natural snow here is a dream come true until spring!”

Through snow flurries and wind in Warth-Schröcken

While groomer operators have the luxury of enjoying an after-work beer if the forecast doesn’t call for snow, if conditions overnight are snowy the early shift starts the moment the first flurries begin. Arthur Weißenbach, who is the longest serving snow groomer operator with 45 seasons in Warth under his belt, arrives with his team early in the morning at the Jägeralpe valley station in Warth-Schröcken. He and his colleagues are not particularly talkative at this early hour. After all, everyone knows what must be done.

For Weißenbach, his route takes him over the blue ski run that winds along the slope to the mountain station of the Jägeralpe. Because his snow groomer does not have a winch, he is responsible for levelling the flatter slopes and digging out stations. After taking over his parents’ business in Warth, the full-time farmer looked for additional sources of income for the winter season. Seasonal work at the ski resort proved to be the ideal opportunity. Over the course of his tenure, he has experienced the development of the ski resort first hand. He can still remember his first time driving the snow groomer as if it were yesterday: “During my first shift, I had to drive directly under the supports at the Jägeralpe station to wind up the pulley. The whole time I was so nervous about driving into a support tower. Luckily, after this experience, I didn’t get scared so easily again!” Weißenbach’s years of experience can be seen in his work.

Once at the mountain station, the task is to smooth out wind drifts and distribute the snow evenly. While the wind roars in front of the snow groomer’s windows, he sits high above the snow in a warmly heated cockpit. “The machines haven’t always been so comfortable. My first snow groomer had 140 hp. The latest models boast 520 hp and feature snow depth measurement systems, GPS and a good heating system. Such luxuries were not available in the past!” Technical snow has also made the work easier and now allows ski resort’s to open on time at the start of each season regardless of natural snow fall. Driving the snow groomer is part of his life: “In spring I almost regret having to stop driving. In autumn, I look forward to work with renewed vigour.” The weather-dependent working hours and getting up early don’t bother him. After all, keeping a flexible schedule is nothing new for a farmer. “I can sleep whenever,” says the Warth native.

So that he doesn’t get bored in the summer either, Weißenbach and his son manage three Alpine pastures in addition to farming. Two hours after his ascent to the summit, Weißenbach has already worked his way down to the practice lifts in the village. He stops briefly to talk to a ski instructor – people know each other in the small village. Weißenbach has also made friends with regular guests, and the year before last he even visited one of the guests in Berlin! After Weißenbach has shaped a downhill run, he steers his snow groomer back to the Jägeralpe valley station. While the skiers will soon be populating the slopes once again, the four snow groomer drivers at the Jägeralpe look forward to breakfast in the Hotel Steffisalp and then its off to bed!

Gateway to a skiing mecca

For many, the real skiing begins at the edge of the Bregenzerwald. Long before it surpassed even itself, the Warth-Schröcken ski area was one of the largest in the country. Now it is connected to Lech-Zürs via the Auenfeldjet cable car. The Flexenbahn in turn runs from Zürs to Stuben/Rauz. In no time at all, skiers suddenly find themselves in the Ski Arlberg ski region. Some call it a ‘Mecca’ because they come here every year on “the Hajj,” a veritable ski pilgrimage. After all, the area features over 300 km of slopes and almost ninety cable cars and lifts! Best of all, it starts in Warth. So too does the ski circuit “Run of Fame,” which is dedicated to Arlberg’s skiing legends. Across 85 kilometres of slopes and 18,000 metres of altitude difference, you can revel in their achievements on the slopes as you seek your own glory. The ski area is open until at least Easter and is situated at 2,500 metres above sea level.

Issue: Winter 2020-21 Bregenzerwald Travel Magazine
Author: Hannah Greber