Dancing with a piste basher – with 400 HP through the winter night

The nightly mission on the slopes and why it’s so important to adhere to piste closure rules and to take the prohibition signs seriously.

Today I was once again one of the first on the slopes on our local mountain, the Königslehen: perfectly prepared slopes plus lots of sunshine and the first spring temperatures in the air – oh, how I just love days like these! Making sure the slopes are in such good condition is the responsibility of our piste basher drivers – a job which requires lots of concentration, resilience and a fine touch. If you think they only drive up & down the slopes, then they’re finished - you’re quite wrong. Many even call them the “Heroes of the Night”, as thanks to them we have perfectly groomed ski slopes to whizz down every morning.

A dream job under a starry sky

Most piste basher drivers are living a childhood dream doing their job. What man – of any age – wouldn’t enjoy a 10-ton machine with over 400 HP pushing the snow up the mountain in front of them and the fresh, white glittery powder snow making a nice heap? The powerful roar of the motor is also not be overheard – and makes the heart of every man beat faster! And because I’m curious what this job entails exactly, I get Niki, one of the piste basher drivers in the Radstadt-Altenmarkt ski area, to give me an insight into his unusual job.

"How and when does your work start?"

“During the day and/or before our shift starts we have to maintain the heavy machinery and if necessary undertake repairs. This requires a heck of a lot of technical know-how and the willingness to get your hands dirty now and again. The work itself starts when the last winter sports enthusiasts have made their way back down to the valley. Before starting the vehicles, we have to check the most important functions of the piste basher are working. If everything’s ok, we sit and drink a cup of coffee together, talk through the nightly workflow and then we get cracking. At 6.00 pm daily we set off with 5 piste bashers to prepare a perfect day’s skiing for the skiers the next morning. We piste basher drivers are a dedicated team and help each other to create the best possible results.“

“What does a night’s work for a piste basher driver look like?“

“Aided by 400 HP I push the snow to the spots required. Using a multi-functional joystick, I can operate the many different functions at the same time and all with just one hand: moving the shield, steering and raising the cutter… With lots of power behind us we head up the slope – up and down, again and again. Driving down you can enjoy a wonderful view of our little town by night.”

“Does the night not seem long?“

“Operating a piste basher requires a great deal of concentration – you don’t have time to get tired. During the night shift I talk to my colleagues by radio, listen to music or just enjoy being master of the slopes.”

“When do you get to bed?“

“If everything runs smoothly, I finish my work at around 1.00 am. Technical problems, fresh snow or rain make preparation more difficult and extend our nightly work on the mountain. In the event of heavy snowfall after the end of our shift or in the early hours of the morning, we have to be prepared to get going again after just a few hours sleep to prepare the slope again.“

“How do you become a piste basher driver?“

“In most ski areas there are no specific requirements. In principle, all you need is a valid driving licence and an initial training with an experienced piste basher driver to start off with. Technical know-how, manual dexterity, a certain flair and a bit of talent help me to prepare the pistes perfectly for the following day.“

“Why are the pistes closed to skiers from 6.00 pm?”

“The piste bashers are partly equipped with a winch. If the snow conditions are difficult, the piste bashers get extra help uphill – from a cable winch, fixed to a mounting. The cable is up to 1,000 m long and has a pulling force of around 4 tons. This section of piste is then cordoned off and flashing lights warn skiers, as the winch cable can easily be overlooked. Unfortunately, there are always people who don’t realize the danger and risk their lives undertaking a ski tour by night.”

You can feel Niki’s passion for his job in his every sentence. I don’t know anyone who looks forward to starting work every day as he does. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the workers who work so hard during the night to ensure our fun on the slopes the next day. By the way – today’s Niki’s day off and without further ado he’s invited me to a nice restaurant, which I’m looking forward to very much! Oh yes, by the way, Niki is my fiancé.

Tips& Info: Facts and figures about piste bashers:

  • 400 to 530 HP, 9-14 tons (according to machine and equipment)
  •  5.5 m wide shield
  • 230 – 260 l tank volume
  • top speed of 20km/h
  • 4.5 tons cable pulling force

  And to finish off - an appeal to all skiers: please take the piste barriers, the prohibition signs and the nightly piste closures after 6.00 pm seriously. After hearing all this information from Niki you can imagine why these are so important.

Photo credits: Christian Hochwimmer, Bergbahnen Zauchensee