...the PistenBully drivers in Sedrun do in summer?
Their job is to tame the snow – that force of nature – in a landscape of extremes where temperatures can fall as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius. The drivers of the snow groomers in the Sedrun Oberalp ski resort brave the frosty conditions from early December to just after Easter. But what happens when the snow is gone?
33-year-old Armin Manetsch is actually a trained mechanic, who has taken over the running of his parents’ farm, where he is actively involved – as long as there is no snow. For Manetsch’s true passion is driving ski slope preparation vehicles. "We PistenBully drivers mostly have seasonal jobs that require manual dexterity – this is something we all have in common", the farmer says. 'Snow grooming', or 'piste bashing' as it is known in the trade, is considered an ideal way for farmers, joiners, lorry drivers, construction and forestry workers in the mountain regions to make money on the side. "You really have to be mad about big machines to do this job", states Manetsch, who dreamed about driving a snow groomer since he was a boy. "As a mechanic, I am naturally fascinated with the technology behind these gigantic machines." Viewed from this angle, there are certainly parallels to be found between his two jobs: large vehicles are a part of his everyday work in both, whether a tractor or a snow groomer.
Waiting until nature is ready
In farming and snow grooming alike, it is nature that determines the work rhythm: in good weather, the PistenBully vehicles swarm out onto the slopes as early as 5:00 pm, only returning well after midnight. If snow is falling, the drivers start work at four in the morning. They then groom the snow until just before nine o’clock, only stopping when the first skiers hit the well-prepared slopes. "As a PistenBully driver, you need to be flexible", explains Armin Manetsch, who first ventured behind the wheel of one of these monsters at the age of 20. "The length of a shift varies. In exceptional cases, you can work up to 13 or 14 hours a day – on a nice day following heavy snowfall, for example." Patience with nature is also required when there is a danger of avalanche: at times like these, the drivers sometimes have to stay on the mountain for four or five days as it would be too dangerous for them to drive back. Luckily, there are enough restaurants in the ski resorts where they can stay overnight. And where do the difficulties lie in working with slope preparation vehicles? "Fresh snow makes it difficult to climb the steep slopes. But the biggest challenge is the weather: fog and snowstorms make the landmarks and contours disappear. The only thing you can do then is wait until visibility improves." Ultimately, the slopes should appear smoother than smooth. No easy task: "The tracks left by the snow groomers are four metres wide – to get these narrowly aligned without any unevenness is a true art. It requires a lot of finesse to operate one of these machines", explains Manetsch, for whom piste bashing is more of a hobby than an occupation. Does Armin Manetsch also flit across his beautifully prepared slopes on skis? "I ski, but not every day because I’ve already spent too much time out there - in my PistenBully."