Clear the slopes for the heroes of the night
When the last skiers make their turns down the valley, the music in the après-ski bars gets louder and louder and the dinner preparations begin. Then their time has come: The snowcat drivers, the "heroes of the night", are ready to get started.
6 p.m.: We take the Asitzbahn cable car to the top station and here we are already greeted by the snowcat driver Stefan, who will be presenting his work tonight. "Climb in", he welcomes us in a friendly manner and points to two padded passenger seats. We make ourselves comfortable and off we go. Directly at the mountain station, there are still some guests and locals who take advantage of the cable car, which is open in the evening for tobogganing and stopping for a bite to eat. But already a few meters from the mountain station we are surrounded by solitude, starry skies and ... many slopes that must be groomed perfectly for the next day. By the way, the driver's snowcat cabin is pretty neat: comfortable seats, enough space and warm temperatures - in combination with the amazing view, it's quite bearable here.
Numbers, numbers, numbers
Just after a few meters it becomes clear that it will not remain with the relaxed enjoyment of the view. First, we pass a narrow connection directly on the ridge in the direction of the Asitz summit - a head for heights is recommended. Then the snowcat is fixed to an anchor next to the new Asitzkogel lift with the winch in order to groom the relatively steep slope safely and gently. Stefan is experienced and operates the snowcat with the gas pedal and a joystick, which moves the blade at the front in all directions. At the same time, he tells us more about the technical details of the machine and makes us quite amazed: 480 hp is what moves the approx. 14 tons heavy machine over the snow. Each year, a snowcat is in operation for about 1,000 hours and over 2,000 kilometers. The machine we are allowed to sit in is already 11 years old and is expected to be on the mountain for another 2 years. The purchase price of a snowcat is about 350,000 €. Since this winter 2022/23, the machine has been fueled with GTL, a synthetic diesel fuel obtained from natural gas that is non-toxic, almost scent-free and biodegradable. For refueling, there are two "gas stations" on the Asitz: one at the middle station and one at the Forsthofalm hut. The fuel is brought to the mountain prior to the winter.
A steel cable means danger!
While we pester Stefan with questions, he skilfully drives up and down the 30-degrees steep slope and spreads the snow evenly. Although we felt a little uneasy on our first steep descent, we gradually got used to the feeling of driving on the slope where full concentration is definitely required. The cable winch is used to absorb some of the weight of the snowcat and to be able to drive more evenly and also faster. However, no skiers are allowed to be on the slopes, because overlooking the steel cable can have fatal consequences. The best conditions, i.e. entire cold temperatures, can even allow a snowcat to climb a 50-degree slope - even without a winch. Today, the snow could be described rather as slush, and the warm temperatures have formed many bumps that need to be flattened out. The night is relatively clear, but that's not always the case, Stefan explains: "It's quite difficult in storms and also during fog". And he has also experienced one or two technical breakdowns, which then must be fixed directly on site - after all, a snowcat can't be towed away that easily.
The perfect slope
"Our" slope is becoming more and more even, and the famous fine rib is appearing. How to get a feel for the perfect slope? Stefan, who has been working on the mountain with the snowcat for 20 years says: "Skiing yourself definitely helps. I also like to go skiing the next morning and test the slope I've groomed". During the years he has been working one or two things have definitely changed: On one hand, grooming is only done when skiers are no longer allowed on the slopes. On the other hand, there have been technical innovations such as digital snow depth measurement. For this purpose, a special screen supports the snowcat drivers, on which the current snow depth is displayed with different colours. Before the winter season, the entire area of the slopes is scanned and measured so that the current snow depth around the snowcat can be displayed by means of GPS transmitters installed in the snowcat.
You can sleep in the morning!
The snowcat drivers' job starts at 4 p.m. After a common discussion about the current conditions, the drivers will be assigned to different slopes including the toboggan run and the winter hiking trails and will get to work after the official closing of the slopes. This evening, due to the soft and work-intensive snow, it's expected to go on until 2 a.m. On some, but rather few, nights the snowcat drivers are "already" done by 11 p.m., but if the snow continues to fall it can take much longer. That means many hours alone in the snowcat, only interrupted by entertainment from the radio and some radio contact with colleagues. "You have to be the type for this job," Stefan confirms, "but at the same time the job is rather family-friendly, because during the day I can easily do something with my kids or go skiing". Work is done in 4 days, then 2 days off. Despite, or maybe because of, the unusual working hours, the snowcat drivers don't have any recruiting problems.
A male dominated job? Almost!
In Leogang there are 12 male snowcat drivers who do their work. With 8 snowcats, so to speak. Some of them also work at the lifts in summer, others are employed as truck drivers, carpenters or woodworkers. The oldest is 60 years old and driving through his 37th winter season. Meanwhile, in other ski resorts, women are also driving the heavy machine, for example in St. Anton. Stefan explains: "The job is feasible for women, too". With a B-driver's license and a comprehensive training period, the job is open to anyone with a feeling for snow, skill in handling the machine, and a willingness to work nights on the mountain. And it doesn't get boring, Stefan confirms, because "you can't get enough of the mountains".
The slope from a different perspective
After our tour, one word in particular remains: Respect. For these men who are out almost the entire night in order to make these dreamlike descents possible for skiers. Almost unnoticed, noticeable only by the moving lights on the mountain. Next time we go skiing, we will definitely think about how it feels to be up there when we look at the fine rib of the slopes. Looking back on that silence on the mountain at night, the power of the machines and the incredible view of the Steinberge mountains by night.
Kudos to the heroes of the night!