From piste-bashers to lift technicians, a hidden workforce prepares Verbier ski resort for the opening of each season
Every autumn, the cows descend from the alpine pastures to the valley, where they will spend the snowy winter snug indoors – as they have for centuries. Recent years have seen an additional migration in the opposite direction. The piste-grooming machines – those giant, caterpillar-tracked workhorses of the ski slopes – emerge from the workshops in the valley where they have spent the summer. They are then driven back up the mountain, to spend the winter smoothing carpets of snow where in summer cows cropped a fragrant carpet of grass.
This is just one of many essential jobs that are done in Alpine resorts off-season. Out of sight of the skiers and snowboarders, a summer crew of engineers, technicians and other staff are working away to make sure that by the time you arrive for your Christmas ski holiday, everything is running as smoothly as a Swiss watch.
The resort of Verbier in the French-speaking part of Switzerland is typical in this respect. It has 23 piste-bashers in all, each of which heads down to the valley every spring to be serviced before returning up the mountain in the autumn. The task is by no means simple: before the journey, mechanics have to remove the caterpillar tracks, the snowplough and other bulky elements before loading each machine onto the back of a transporter.
Up on the mountain in summer, many of the wild animals have come out of hibernation to feed and breed. The resort, meanwhile, slips into a state of aestivation. Most winter staff have left, usually for other seasonal jobs; the majority of hotel beds lie empty.
A core crew remains behind, however, to do essential maintenance work – much of it orchestrated by Gilbert Simon, director of technical operations at Téléverbier, the company that runs the cable cars and ski lifts.
“If you think about the number of parts there are in 40 ski lifts, it’s crazy,” says Simon. Between them they have seven cable car cabins, 524 gondolas of various sizes, 273 T-bars and buttons on the drag lifts, and 1,265 multi-seater chairs on the various chairlifts – all of which need to be serviced and checked, by a team of some 30 specialised technicians.
One of the main tasks is to carry out tests on the braking mechanisms of the various lifts. Engineers simulate full loads of passengers by loading the cabins with concrete blocks – which you can usually spot during the winter, stacked beside the cable car stations. To test Verbier’s biggest lift, the Jumbo – which can accommodate up to 150 people – the technicians load each cabin with 12 tonnes of concrete.
Another major task for Simon’s team is ensuring that all the safety equipment is in place. There is the bright orange netting, hung up to stop out-of-control skiers and snowboards from hurtling off dangerous drops. There is the orange padding – “mattresses”, they call them here – that they tie around many of the lifts’ 368 pylons, and other man-made installations that you would not want to hit at speed.
And then there are the wooden poles that mark the side of the pistes. If you consider that Verbier alone has more than 60 miles of pistes, and the whole Four Valleys ski area more than 250 miles, and that there are markers every few metres, the total number clearly runs into tens of thousands. Putting up this safety equipment alone takes a team of three people two months.
The snow cannons and other snowmaking equipment, along with the water and air pipes, all need to be checked. So must the facilities at the various restaurants up on the mountain – whose larders and cellars also need stocking before the first hungry skiers appear on the doorstep, removing their steamed-up goggles and kicking the snow off their boots.
The people who do all these tasks are only a small share of the team of 250 that Simon has working under him during the winter. Many of these are lift operators, who return only in December, along with the bar staff, the chambermaids, the waiters and waitresses, the armies of chalet boys and girls and the ski instructors – for whom migrating to work for the season is a matter of lifestyle.
By the time you arrive in resort, they will have settled in to their jobs. They will have polished thousands of pieces of cutlery, vacuumed kilometres of corridors, ironed acres of crisp white sheets. The piste basher drivers will have started unrolling their pristine white carpets, from the mountain tops down, as the snow blanket thickens. And cooks up in the mountain restaurants will have stocked up on potatoes, pasta, and spices, so that your spaghettis à la bolognaise, frites and vin chaud will be ready almost before you’ve ordered them.
So, on your first morning in resort, when you wake up and look out of the window and wonder whether the snow gods have a vintage holiday lined up for you – remember they aren’t the only ones you need for the best week of your year.
- Further information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the Verbier tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
- Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch)