It’s 2am when the alarm goes off. I’m not used to getting up this early it has to be said but I manage it quite easily, especially since the experience that awaits Ingrid and I is exceptional to say the least… We’re off to groom the ski slopes!
A quick breakfast and a last check of our photo and video equipment before we jump in the car and head off to the slope maintenance garage in Val Thorens.
We meet the night shift for a coffee. Having been given their instructions by their team leader, the drivers discuss the work that waits them. After a quick chat, we go down to the warehouse to give the machine the once over before we set off.
It’s 3 am when we take our seats next to our driver, Olivier.
As we leave the warehouse, each piste groomer goes off in a different direction. We make our way towards the Thorens sector.
The bright lights of the piste groomer light up the slope ahead of us, whilst Olivier tells us more about his job.
We learn that certain slopes are more exposed to the sunshine and suffer more damage due to the number of skiers using them; these are the ones that need to be groomed first. They are maintained in the evening, as soon as the slopes close at 5.30pm, giving the snow enough time to cool down and harden.
Olivier also explains that piste grooming is comprised of several stages:
- First of all you need to break down the moguls and bumps and bring the snow back up the slope using the blade at the front of the machine.
- Due to the weight of the machine, the caterpillar tracks and the cutter at the rear will grind the snow down into tiny pieces.
- Afterwards, the yellow plastic front blade is used to smoothen the snow, giving the slopes a grooved finish.
The machine goes up and down the slope like a yo yo, and as soon as that one is finished it moves on to the next.
It can be pretty impressive when you head face first towards the slope; you need to make sure you sit back in your seat so as not to end up on the windscreen!
The steepest slopes are usually groomed with machines that are fitted with a winch, which support them and make for a more regular, better quality finish. They also help 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 of the to ensure no stones appear.
Olivier makes it all look so easy! But this job requires plenty of experience because there are many variables - the temperature, the time of year, the weather conditions, as well as the quantity and quality of snow, which can also effect the final result.
It’s already 6.15am and the sun is coming up over Val Thorens’ ski area. The time passed by in the blink of an eye and the vision appearing before us is truly magnificent. The sky is filled with hints of blue, pink, yellow…
At 8am we hear the piste grooming manager’s voice on the radio as he talks to the night shift’s team leader. He says the grooming was carried out well and will prepare to open the slopes with the ski patrol. It’s back to reality for me, as I catch myself drifting off and dreaming of the mountains….
It’s time to finish grooming our last run and head back toward the garage to clean the machine and park it up. We need to get the lumps of snow and ice off and fill it up with fuel...
We say goodbye to Olivier and the rest of the team ; it’s our turn to get some work done now by writing this account up to share with you.
The piste groomers will be back in place again at the end of the day, when the evening shift close the slopes and start the slope maintenance process until 1am.