When you roll off your last ski run and soak in that hot onsen bath, when the chairlifts and gondolas have come to their quiet halts and sunset leaves behind a magical pink hue. It is time for the Hakuba Valleys armies of workers to climb into their big metal beasts. By morning these “piste-groomers” have pushed and tilled the snow on dozens of ski runs into perfect corduroy stripes.
It is not only about the powder in the Hakuba Valley, the thrill of carving a fresh groomed slope is one of the most fantastic feelings on snow. Responsible for this are the resorts highly skilled grooming team. And without them we would all be skiing and boarding on powder and bumps on the beginner and intermediate slopes as big as they are on the expert runs.
Peering at from your hotel room in the dead of the night you’ll probably glimpse their headlight patterns in the far distance, among a swirl of snow-flurries. The piste-grommers are nocturnal working dusk to dawn shifts. While you are sleeping soundly under your duvet you can bet the that they will be out there somewhere very lonely in the darkness performing tasks such as restoring tired pistes, nudging reserves of drifted snow onto thin patches and much more besides. Poor snow cover can be unavoidable in more exposed areas, where prevailing winds can blow the fresh snow away as fast as it falls, so the piste groomers get to know where to find the reserves of snow, whether drifted of nudged into sheltered spots for later use by the teams themselves.
It can get very lonely up on the mountains. Even in daylight when the visibility suddenly drops, skiers and boarders can lose their bearings in seconds, but the groomer drivers must know their mountains intimately even at night and in blizzard conditions. This ski area knowledge can take a couple of seasons to acquire. Even then, the unexpected can occur, so the drivers keep in constant contact with their control center and each other with GPS and of course mobile phones. And just to keep spirits up they also have hi-fi systems and formidable cab heaters. A home from home really!
Not that life is a picnic, it is hard work fighting fatigue in poor or no visibility, strong winds and white outs. Driving a groomer or snowcat as they are sometimes called is a delicate art. Riding on the wide, metal-bladed tracks means that progress, even on soft snow, tends to feel nerve-jangling firm – not ideal when the controls are light and amazingly sensitive.
Wondering why you ski pass is becoming pricier? Well the groomers aren’t cheap. Each vehicle costs about $300,000. And with such big engines they can consume at the rate of 250 liters of fuel per vehicle per shift.