Shortly before the start of the season, I had the opportunity to look over the shoulders of Josef Stadler, Operations Manager at Monte Popolo in Eben im Pongau, and his staff and take a look behind the scenes. Because even if you ski regularly, it's not every day that you get to visit a pumping station or ride on a piste basher, is it?
I'm a little excited when I meet Josef at the Monte Popolo valley station - so far I've only seen the cable car and piste from a skier's perspective. First, we make a detour to the Topolino 1 practice lift, which is mainly used by little ski bunnies. Before starting up, the safety devices and electronics are checked and tested down at the "lift operator’s hut" and up at the exit. Finally, Josef adjusts the tension of the rope before we continue to the pumping station.
There are two pumps here that transport the water from the bathing lake and a well to the snowmaking systems and a second pumping station on the mountain - at a rate of 80 litres per second. The water used must be of drinking water quality and is checked regularly, as are the system's electronics, hydraulics and valves. The pumps and the individual systems can be monitored and controlled at any time from the computer in the valley station or from a mobile phone. Around 30 snow cannons and lances help Mother Nature to cover the slopes of Monte Popolo with snow.
This snow needs to be spread evenly. Herbert and "his" snow groomer are responsible for this. The pistes are then groomed - which of you will be the first on the piste and can make your turns in the wonderfully prepared snow? Herbert even takes me for a little spin. We drive up the bottom piste of the valley descent and are secured with a rope due to the steep terrain. "Unfortunately, some skiers or ski tourers don't pay attention to the piste closure. In the dark, the rope is practically invisible. If you ski into the rope, it can end very badly," warns Herbert. What is immediately noticeable in the cabin: there is a screen next to the pedal. "This system shows how the snow is distributed on the piste. So you know exactly where there is too much snow and where this excess should be pushed. The ground was precisely measured in summer, so the difference in height between the field and the piste machine gives the snow depth," explains Herbert. A simple idea that makes it possible to work with centimetre precision thanks to ultra-modern surveying technology. In simple terms, the 527 hp, 14-tonne snow groomer is controlled using a pedal, two steering elements and a joystick, which is used to move the blade and the seven-metre-wide tiller. The blade is used to redistribute the snow and the tiller to prepare it.
After the ride on the snow groomer, Josef takes me to the workshop in Flachau. Two of the snow groomers are currently being overhauled in the large hall. "Our snow groomers are all fuelled with HVO fuel," Josef mentions. This synthetic fuel can reduce emissions by 90% compared to diesel engines. This measure is just one of many that Snow Space Salzburg, which co-operates the Monte Popolo ski resort, is taking to achieve climate neutrality by 2025/26. On the way back to Eben, Josef tells me about his career: "After school, I did an apprenticeship as an electrician. I started working at the lift in Eben in 1997. I've been operations manager since 2008, the year in which the double chairlift was renovated, and the Popolo 2 was built." What he particularly likes about his job: "The variety. I like the fact that I'm involved everywhere. It's important to have a team that I can rely on and that responsibility can be shared." In winter, around 20 people work at the Monte Popolo at the ticket desks, in the workshop, on the piste groomer or on the lifts, ensuring that skiers and snowboarders can enjoy a great day's skiing.
"Now I'll show you our senior," says Josef with a grin. By senior of course, he means the double chairlift that has been reliably taking skiers up the mountain since 1973 - and will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2023, including a retro race. Like every cable car, this old lady also has a second motor that temporarily powers the cable car in the event of a power failure to get winter sports enthusiasts to the top. The special thing about this engine: "It's a VW engine that was used in exactly the same way in cars back then." The engine and clutch are actually installed in the Popolo 1 with the emergency power unit. As my gaze falls on the concrete-filled canisters around it, Josef already has an explanation ready: "Once a year, the function of the railway has to be tested with the maximum load. The concrete canisters then serve as "dummies". This test and many other checks also have to be carried out annually or monthly and meticulously documented for our next destination, the Popolo 2 6-seater chairlift. Maintenance, checks, cleaning and inspections keep Josef and his team on their toes even in summer - around seven employees work at Monte Popolo all year round.
We continue by quad bike to the mountain station of the Popolo 2. Unlike the double chairlift, this is not a fixed-grip lift, meaning that the chairs are separated from the rope when entering the valley and mountain stations and diverted onto a rail. This means that the chair moves more slowly, which makes it easier to get on and off the lift and the chairs can be brought to the station over the summer and overnight in winter. The weather protection bonnets are currently being cleaned and polished so that they are ready for the upcoming start of the season. The fact that the Popolo 2 is a few years younger than the Popolo 1 can also be seen in the technology. Entire boxes full of fuses and control elements fill the rooms at the mountain station. Current measurements and weather data are displayed, as are error messages. If the rope triggers an emergency stop, for example, the system recognises the affected support, and Josef and his team can act quickly.
Full of impressions and new information, I make my way back down to the valley station with Josef - and I'm already looking forward to my next day of skiing on the Monte Popolo, which I'm sure I'll appreciate even more after this day. Maybe we'll meet up - carving, snowboarding, ski touring, in the fun park or at a refreshment stop 😉
Bildnachweis: TVB Eben_Angi Pfuner