The trail makers in the night!21.02.2023 Gstaad Living, Gstaad Saanenland Tourism, Bergbahn Destination Gstaad, Sports & Leisure, Gstaad Living
It looks like muted ballet in the dark, something from a silent movie. The lights glide effortlessly, up and down the mountain, across the white mass in the all-enveloping darkness. Every night the same performance – it is the snow groomers, creators of the pristine trails we wake up to every morning.
The sight of the massive machinery and technology used to create the smooth white pistes is truly impressive. But did you know that 340 km of combined trails (alpine, cross country and tobogganing) are groomed daily in Gstaad? Add to that the 120 winter hiking trails, and the snow groomers have a full plate every night.
First, there must be snow
To ensure that we have pristine conditions for skiing, the Bergbahn Destination Gstaad (BDG) produces artificial snow. Twenty-four pump stations are strategically placed in the ski area, and the system pumps water from the river into the snowmaking system. When all pumps run, more than 800 litres of water are pumped into the system – per second! And then 730 snow canons or pistols spray the snow on the mountain.
Man and Machine
In layman’s terms, we call the snow grooming machine a PistenBully, and I wonder if it doesn’t take quite the courage to drive one of these things? Think of the vertical drop when driving down the mountain! Albeit the scenery is second to none, the silence of the dark mountain must be imposing. And lonely? All alone, man and his machine? Well, not entirely alone because the animals come out at night. “I often see snow hares and foxes when working the pistes. Most of the time, they run away when they hear the noise of the machine, but once there was a badger that wouldn’t budge. It was an exceptional experience because it was as if the badger was waiting for me to make the trail for him as if it knew this was my route,” says Ruedi Frutiger, in charge of snowmaking and trail prep in the eastern part of the ski region.
Satnav for trail makers and snow guns
The data from the groomer and snow guns are then collected and stored on a server. Down at the snowmaking centre, a single operator oversees the preparation of ski slopes and manages the coordination of snowmakers and snow groomers. By monitoring snow production in real-time, the operator ensures that snow is only produced where and when it is required, resulting in electricity, water, and time savings. On top of that, it provides a better piste experience for guests.
The Golden Bug
Undoubtedly, it is impressive machinery, and the red Pisten Bully machines are unanimous with alpine snow grooming and a generic expression. But perhaps this is about to change. The latest addition to the machine park in Gstaad is the Leitwolf LT t5. It looks like a giant golden bug or something out of the Avengers. It is very impressive and, of course, equipped with the latest technology.
This a Golden machine for Golden Slopes.
Nevertheless, snow grooming is still a formidable job and nighttime business. On nights when it snows, they start at 3:30am to prepare the slopes in time for when the lifts open. On other days they start as soon as the slopes close and, to my pleasure, perform the silent mountain ballet for us to enjoy.
Besides courage, it also takes training and skill to be a snow groomer. However, technology has advanced in this field too. Most machines have a clever snowsat system installed. First, the snow depth is measured using GPS technology, continuously determining the position of the snow groomer; the system can calculate the snow depth at any given point on the terrain. The digital terrain model, stored in the system, provides a reference height, and the difference between the terrain and the height of the groomer gives the snow depth at the current location. This process is repeated at multiple points along the groomer’s path to get a complete picture of the snow depth across the terrain.