Grooming with the Piste Bashers
Every skier who has conquered the Harakiri is proud to call themselves “a survivor”. But what about those people whose job it is to make sure that Austria’s steepest prepared piste is ready to be skied all winter long?
490 HP in the Back
My male friends would be so jealous if they knew where I am right now: sitting in the cockpit of a piste basher on the Harakiri piste, I am feeling good! In front of me is a semi-circle steering wheel which I would sooner have expected to find in a rally car. To my right is a joystick, perfectly positioned for the driver’s hand. The control panel is also well-positioned so that its many functions are easy to operate, and every function is pictured and colour-coded. Over my armrest I can reach the screen in the middle of a control panel in the central armrest. The motor of this 12 tonne machine starts with the press of a button that activates the 490 HP in the back.
Thank Goodness for the Winches
I am surrounded by 3 men, two piste basher drivers and Josef Geisler, manager of the Mayrhofner Bergbahnen, One of the drivers, Gottfried Rahm, is responsible for the condition of the steepest prepared piste in Austria: the Harakiri. Together they explain to me how it is even possible to groom a piste with an average incline of 78 percent. „The Harakiri has an average gradient of 36 degrees and has only been a prepared piste for a few years – only since it has been technically possible. Previously, the slope was just a mogul field.”, explains Josef Geisler.
Preparation of the Harakiri Piste
The preparation of the extremely steep Harakiri piste has been made possible through a cable winch system. When the specially adapted piste bashers are grooming the piste, they hang by a strong cable from a so-called ‘anchor point’ which is fixed in summer and prevents the piste basher from falling. These special winches don’t eliminate all of the risk though and work in tandem with the piste bashers hydraulic drive unit. Josef Geisler informs me; ʺThe driver must be fully concentrated on the job in hand and also use a special seat belt to hold him in the driver’s seat.” Gottfried Rahm adds: ʺI have to be very careful that the winches are not overloaded which would put a great pressure on the cables and the anchor point.”“ Both of these things are regularly controlled in order to repair any potential damage early enough.
Harakiri: A Special Challenge
I ask the experienced piste basher driver how he feels when he is preparing the Harakiri. ʺThe Harakiri is a special challenge which I approach with care every day. But I’ve doing this for over 25 years and so I no longer really think about the extraordinary steepness of the slope”, says Gottfried Rahm convincingly.
However, preparing the Harakiri takes more than just a piste basher. A clever approach when covering the piste in snow and building up layers of snow is also important.
Intellegent Snow Coverage
ʺThree to four weeks of building up layers are needed in early winter in order to smooth out the contours of the land.”, reports Josef Geisler. ʺEvery day a layer of artificial snow is pressed into the surface of the piste by the chains and left in this condition. Only just before the piste is opened do we use the rear moulder to smooth out the piste and make it ready to be skied.” The Harakiri is also covered in artificial snow every day to ensure that the snow on the piste has reasonably good traction right up to the end of the season. I’m asked if I would like to come again. My answer? Of course! How often do you get the chance to experience a job which half the world would love to do?
Read & Ride
What skiers and snowboarders need before they dare to tackle Austria’s steepest prepared piste:
- Knowledge of the FIS rules
- Good physical fitness
- Excellent physical coordination
- Above average skiing or snowboarding ability
- Good experience
- Stable body position
- Weight on the outside ski – don’t lean into the slope
- Good equipment – including good edges and a helmet
- Absolute „No Go“ for Snowblades and short skis
Facts & Figures
Keeping the Harakiri open takes a lot of hardwork. The piste needs to be covered in artificial snow every day and prepared with the utmost of care. If, just once, too little snow is put on the piste, the snow would break away like an avalanche and mean starting the preparations from scratch. In addition contours in the Harakiri have to be created and maintained, to help skiers and snowboarders who fall come to rest safely.