As skiers, we are used to seeing them parked neatly somewhere beside the slopes. I am talking about snowcats, trail groomers or Pistenbully, as they are called around here.
Frankly, it has been a childhood dream of mine to someday ride along in one of these impressive vehicles. Thanks to Lenk Tourism and the flexible crew of Bergbahnen Lenk, my dream is about to become true on an early January morning.
Despite the early morning hours, the kind concierge at the Lenkerhof Gourmet Spa Resort where I am staying hands me breakfast-to-go. At 3:25 AM, I am supposed to meet the operator of a snowcat near the hotel. I can already see a "flurry" of activity through the snow storm. After a brief handshake and introductions, we use brooms to clear our vehicle from the fresh snow.
Given that the snowcats were parked here after the evening shift ended around midnight, they are covered in fresh powder.
For about the first ten minutes, all five snowcats follow one another up the slopes of the Lenk ski resort.
Radio contact among the drivers is only occasional and brief. Everyone knows exactly what to do and which slopes to prepare. Snowfall is very heavy this morning and the only way for me to keep track of where the others are is by the blinking lights:
No time is wasted and every minute counts. Before the lifts open, we have about five hours to lay the tracks in the popular ski region of Lenk.
Imagine a lot of snow. Now imagine more. This is how much snow we are plowing... It's unbelievable!
There are different methods to push the snow masses into shape. In order to level out the runs, we plow and push the snow with the blade in the front. The operator is using a joystick to maneuver the blade ever so carefully, filling in holes or evening out bumps. Another method is referred to as grooming, which is the process of cutting up the snow into powder and creating a beautiful wavy surface. For this, we use the tiller in the back of the snowcat.
As we go up and down the slopes, sometimes spending 30 minutes on a particular hill, it becomes apparent to me that this job requires a lot of diligence and patience.
By 6:15 AM, we arrive in the vicinity of the Stoss-Leiterli ski lift. It is no longer pitch dark outside, but this doesn't change the fact that it is freezing cold.
The pilot stops the snowcat, puts it into "P" and gets out. All of a sudden, I am all by myself inside the heated cockpit as I watch this brave guy attach a hoist to the front of the snowcat. In order to prevent our machine from sliding down the slope, we will quite literally be hanging on an 850 meter long metal wire as we back down.
Around 9:00 AM, we reach the top of the Betelberg gondola at 2000 meters above sea.
There, the last job of the day is awaiting us. Overnight, the Berghotel Leiterli has been completely snowed in, and our snowcat is pivotal in carving a path into the heavy white mass.
It is only up here that I finally have the guts to ask the driver for a brief stop.
We have been busy all morning and it is already bright out. But I just want to take a picture of the snowcat. And one thing becomes clear: The quality of the preparation is superb!
By 8:45 AM, we have arrived at the garage where each snowcat is carefully checked, cleaned, refilled and parked until the evening shift begins.
Despite the early wake-up call, I am full of energy. One of my childhood dreams has just been fulfilled, and I am seriously considering to join this friendly crew as a snow cat operator someday...
(Thank you for making this once-in-a-lifetime experience happen, Lenk Bergbahnen!)