They work on the slopes alone in the dark – and boy do they love their snow. Paul Taylor reports
WITH each skier moving up to a tonne of snow a day, maintaining Queenstown slopes is a mammoth task.
While most people are tucked up in bed, at Coronet Peak a small team from a pool of 18 groomers and snow makers work through the cold night to repair and prepare the runs for the next day’s onslaught.
“If we’ve got 3000 on the mountain, that’s 3000 tonnes of snow being moved that has to go back,” slopes manager Pete Deuart says.
“For the guys out in the snow, they’re adventurous. They’ve got that passion for the snow and they’re very self-motivated. They’re constantly making their own decisions.”
Deuart, in the snow business for more than 15 years, says being on the mountain overnight can be peculiar and often extraordinary.
“Even though there’s a base building you’re still on a mountain by yourself. It’s quite bizarre.
“It’s a freedom. You’re here when no one else is. You see the stars, the shooting stars, the sunsets, sunrises. Twice I’ve seen the Southern Lights – things like that, when everyone’s asleep.”
The snow groomers run four 450bhp PistenBully 600s, two with winches for steep slopes, while the snow makers manage the ski area’s 213 snow guns – which fire automatically when temperatures drop to -2degrees and humidity is within a specific range.
This will be Ondrej Basek’s third season working Queenstown skifields.
“We have a good team but I drive in the Cat alone,” the 27-year-old from the Czech Republic says.
“Usually the whole shift, eight hours, apart from safety breaks. It depends on the condition.”
Basek listens to local radio stations while he uses his skills to move the snow with a blade on the front, smash it into small pieces with a tiller and then uses the plastic finishers to manicure the surface.
“Everything about grooming is experience, knowing the conditions – sometimes you can’t drive the Cat everywhere.
“I look forward to driving with the winch because you can hook up and groom steep slopes. It can be bit scary up there but it’s good.
“Sometimes I go in the mornings for first tracks – and to check my job. It’s nice to ski freshly groomed slopes.”
Deuart says it takes a certain type of person to cope with the relative isolation and shift work pattern.
“If you’re a raft guide you’ve got six new instant friends every day,” Deuart says.
“Then they’ve got nights off so they can go around town and hang out but with this you kind of can’t.”
The largest snow guns can convert up to seven litres of water into snow per second. The entire system can move up to 500 litres of water per second when running at full capacity.
Keeping both the guns and the Cats running is one of the team’s skills.
“That’s the backbone. You can spend as much money as you like but at the end of the day it does come down to guys on the ground making sure those machines keep going,” Deuart says.
“It’s hard, especially in weather like this [dense cloud].”
The MetService has supplied NZSki with its own paid pro-gramme to model the weather, though ultimately skifield operations are at the mercy of Mother Nature.
“When we’re not working it’s an easy job – but it’s soul-destroying,” Deuart says.
“There are all these people in town relying on the mountains to open – to fill restaurants, bring visitors, and put people to work.
“We employ 500 people who could be not earning a pay cheque, not to mention tourists who have saved for 10 years to come here.”
Deuart says he tries not to obsess about the weather but instead focus on decisions to counteract some of its effects.
“Some people let it take hold of them.
“But the weather is the weather, there’s nothing we can do about it. You still feel it, you feel like you’ve let people down. But you have to try to not get emotionally involved.
“It’s exciting this year though – we seem to have got a break from Mother Nature after the last two years.”