When we ask: “How does the work of a snow groomer driver look like?”,
the answer is usually the same: “That is very simple. He comes to work, changes his trainers and gets in his groomer. Then he drives up and down a slope for two hours and ends his shift. Beautiful views from Mt. Chopok, comfort on the groomer seat and corduroy everywhere within an hour.” Snow grooming cannot be that difficult, can it? Well, we have seen ourselves that it is not such a fairytale. We have spent several shifts with Mišo, the chief snow groomer driver in Jasná.
We are arriving at the Koliesko area before four o´clock in the afternoon. Some of the snow groomers begin to groom the northern side of the mountain from there. Snow grooming is a much more complex, difficult and complicated process that you would expect. Before the drivers get in their machines, they have to meet in front of a computer screen to assign the pistes. Today´s era is more modern and computer technologies are of a big help when doing snow grooming. For example Snowsat. This special slope and fleet management system with GPS monitors the snow depth on the pistes and the positioning of snow groomers, collects and displays a lot of information, e.g. which light was on or off on which snow groomer, the engine or snow plough capacity during the grooming process. The whole system is much more complex and very helpful. Several long essays could be written about Snowsat and other support systems but this is not what our blog is meant for. Here we want to tell you more about the work of the boys who take care of the quality on the pistes but mainly about the safety there. Coffee is finished, the tasks are assigned and we are finally getting in the machines.
The ski resort of Jasná - Nízke Tatry has a fleet of 13 snow groomers,
most of which are various modifications of Kässbohrer PistenBully 600. The 600 Polar SCR with a 6-cylinder Mercedes-Benz engine and a 510 horsepower has the highest performance. The fuel consumption of this 12-tonne-heavy giant is very friendly – about 20 l/h. Winches with standard 1,000-metre-long steel cables are instrumental. Modern cabs feature various displays, Snowsat monitors, a lot of switches and pilot lights. Everything ergonomically arranged. High-quality technology is not everything, though. It is people who are most important.
Mišo asks us what we actually know about snow grooming and if we have an idea what it takes to groom a piste properly. Did you know that snow groomers in Jasná work on an area of 140 hectares and in order to treat all worn out sections and move snow there, i.e. where it used to be before, they sometimes plough an area of 250 hectares? All groomers in Jasná can complete a total of 10,000 kilometres within one month. These are very interesting numbers that are difficult to imagine for ordinary people. And human work with effort invested in ensuring high quality on the pistes is difficult to express in numbers.
We are beginning to make “corduroy” on the piste of Bielá púť (13). This is like a warm-up. Corduroy actually stands for “stripes” on the slopes which are created by grooming machines. At first, snow is groomed and flattened by a ploughshare, then a miller chops hard surface and the so called “finisher” pushes the snow down and creates the corduroy. Slopes groomed like this freeze much better, which guarantees this fantastic feeling when skiing in the morning. Two groomers are enough to change a piste within a few minutes. After a while, we are moving to more difficult terrain, straight to Mt. Chopok. It is already dark outside but the machines are shining – with warning orange lights, intense headlights and spotlights. All of them are switched on to avoid accidents. Because these can happen.
Bad weather, zero visibility, strong wind and snowing count to the biggest problems. But also people. Those who do not respect the ski piste closure from 04:00pm, i.e. after the end of the cableway opening times to 08:30am, i.e. the beginning of the opening times. Such people risk not only their lives but also the mental health of men inside the grooming machines. The operator of the ski resorts cares for the safety of skiers and all other resort visitors in the first place and does their best to avoid collisions with skiers on the pistes. This applies to daytime as well as nights. Every day, there are problems with individuals who enter the pistes also when they are closed, ski tourers with head lamps who set out for their trips at night and alone despite restrictions, ascend or ski down across the slopes and destroy the work of snow groomer drivers and on the other side, they risk colliding with snow groomers. It is the worst nightmare when a ski tourer with a head lamp, sometimes slightly drunk, appears in front of one´s ploughshare or wheels. What is more, most groomers over the area of Biela Púť are fixed with cables. In order to increase the grooming quality, cable fixing is used mainly in steep terrain or when the snow is wet. Cables and winches help the machines by saving the engine, avoiding that the 12-tonne-heavy groomers get buried in deep snow and destroy the lower ski slope layers, they guarantee smooth operation up and down the pistes. And this is where it gets serious. Cables can cause injuries but sometimes even worse tragedies. Please respect the ski piste closure from 04:00pm to 8:30am! And if you need to ski down, be careful and keep along the piste edges. Movement on the pistes while the snow groomers work is very dangerous and devalues the work of the groomer drivers. Nobody wants to find slopes destroyed by ski tourers who return from their night trips late at night.
But let´s go back to the groomer cab. We are heading for Mt. Chopok now. Mišo says he would never change this job for anything else. The view from his office is the best. Well, when the weather conditions are ideal. And we believe him. It must be great to watch city lights from Mt. Chopok. We have arrived at the top. Mišo fastens the cable to special anchor points and we are setting out for the piste of Pretekárska (1C). Driving a snow groomer is an adrenalin activity not only for the drivers but also for their co-passengers. It does not matter whether you move up the hill or downwards. In the steepest section of Majstrovská no.7 with an inclination of 32°, one needs to prop their feet against the cab floor and hold tight. Now we understand what the safety belts are meant for. At first, snow which is piled up after skiing or blown by wind to the edges has to be distributed all over the piste. A strong engine and a powerful plough are essential. The miller is still waiting. Snow is moved from the edges to the middle. Once the piste is flat, it is time for the miller. Groomer drivers are not only machine drivers. They have to master many activities and know a lot of things, e.g. physics basics, various snow kinds, how snow “behaves” on the piste, meteorology, technology and much more. What to do when a groomer gets frozen at -35°C? Yes, this can happen too. Technology versus nature. And what then? Replace the fuel filter and continue with the work! Mišo drives around the piste with the milling plough several times. He is a former ski racer, a graduate of the Faculty of Physical Education and Sport of Bratislava so he wants to have the piste prepared perfectly for the morning. This is what other men inside the groomers wish as well. They are a good crew. The oldest member has been driving groomers since 1976. The coordination of the machines is just amazing. Precisely determined tracks, great cooperation and experience are what high-quality skiing pleasure is based on. It is team work. The boys help each other and when one of them needs anything, they do not hesitate. They all have to be good at their jobs. Even a second of hesitating can destroy the effort of the rest of them. When you come to the resort in the morning, you want to have perfectly groomed pistes and you are not interested in the names of the groomer drivers. The only thing you care about is the result. And that is what they are responsible for together.
We have been sitting inside the machine for three hours already. Mišo is still grooming the piste of Pretekárska but this time it is the central part of it. He is paying attention to ski tourers and is mastering the plough and miller skilfully. The winch helps him a lot. It is a real mastery. We cannot wait to see how it looks like in the morning. Wet snow is the worst to work with. It is more difficult to be groomed, sticks to the plough and wheels, does not “cooperate”, it is difficult to turn around the machines on such surface and every mistake the groomer drivers make is be visible. Powder snow is the best for work. A real pleasure. It is eleven o´clock and regular resort clients who want to enjoy fresh corduroy are already going to bed. The boys in the machines, however, have to keep on. Once their work on the pistes is done, they park their groomers, refuel and clean them of course. Nobody wants to carry dozens of kilos of frozen snow. The shift is about to end soon. It is time for sleep. Groomed pistes will be waiting for us tomorrow morning. Pistes that the groomer boys have taken care of. Why are the slopes groomed in the evening and not in the morning? Because snow needs to “link up” and “mature”, preferably for eight hours.
But sometimes the tide turns. Instead of evening grooming, the men work in the morning. This happens when the soaked snow gets frozen, needs to be chopped in the morning and the pistes must be made safe for people. Or when a lot of fresh snow falls at night.
We have tried one morning and three evening shifts. And we have not managed to stay until the end of the evening ones not even in one case. It was not boring but it was hard. Keeping focused on every movement, watching many indicators, communicating via radio transmitters, coordinating one´s work with other colleagues and all this often at very poor visibility and with strong wind blowing around. Big respect for the boys! They love their jobs and do their best to make all of you return to the resort again.
Many blogs could be written about piste grooming itself, about experiences, funny but also less funny stories. We plan to meet these guys again and deliver other interesting details to you.
People often say that the Slovaks cannot groom pistes properly. That it takes only a few hours and the slopes are bumpy again. That the Austrians can do it better. When talking to Mišo, we have learned that this is not so much true. There are experienced and high-quality groomer drivers in Slovakia. Unfortunately, the climatic and weather conditions on Mt. Chopok and in Austrian resorts are much different. Masses of people on the slopes affect the surface quality considerably. It is foolish to expect that corduroy could last for half a day. Creating flat and high-quality pistes is a long and very difficult process. The boys in the machines know it and do their best. The lines between their tracks can be felt sometimes, of course, there can be waves in some sections. Nobody is perfect and these boys are only humans like we all are.