On the slopes with Zermatt’s “hero of the night”

Snow cats drivers are the “heroes of the night”, coming out of their lairs when skiers leave the pistes just before darkness falls. An army of drivers levels the pistes throughout the whole night to prepare them for the next day’s snow sport fun.

The driver’s cabin is spacious, the hum of the engine is comforting. The hydrostatically driven vehicle seems to glide on water, sometimes taking a slight roll. Eyes firmly on the computer screen, Fernando Truffer (36) keeps his left hand on the control stick and his right on the joystick. Concentrating on the path, he drives out of Riffelberg (2,582 m), following his snow cat colleagues up the pistes. They all met up in the common room just before 4 p.m. to discuss the night’s shift. Fernando, the chief driver, assigned an area to each driver. “Actually, we always take the same pistes”, he explains. Routine helps the drivers avoid rocks and create snow depots. When the snow is blowing, it is particularly important to know each dip and curve. “Sometimes we have to stop the vehicles and wait until a snow flurry abates. Then we can take our cue from the poles that line the pistes.”
The colleague in front takes off in the direction of Hohtälli. Fernando goes to Rotenboden (2,815 m) to level the toboggan piste which will be followed by the winter hiking path and subsequently numerous skiing pistes. The walky-talky buzzes, conveying messages from the communication centre about the transport of injured persons and pistes that have already been checked by the piste patrolmen. A babble of voices in a lonely landscape. The passenger seat is comfortable and the spectacle of darkness creeping up from the valley is breath-taking. The sky intermittently reveals the starry firmament – all in plain view of the Matterhorn. Outside a cold wind is blowing, but the inside the cabin, it is warm and comfortable.

Thousands of skiers hollow out the pistes

Fernando‘s snow cat has 490 PS and a state-of-the-art joystick for accurate settings of the rear snow cutter and the front snow plough: “Depending on the snow conditions, we set the shaft lower and then chop the snow into tiny fragments”, he explains. Every night, pistes must be prepared after thousands of skiers have hollowed them out during the day and mountains of snow have piled up on the edges. The snow cats fix it: The plough moves the snow piles into the holes and the rotary cutter at the rear of the vehicle chops it into small fragments. The cherry on the cake: a press tills the snow into narrow grooves.

The good folk on the mountain

Once the skiing fans are gone for the day, 23 snow cat drivers get to work on the 165 kilometres of pistes that need to be prepared. The moniker “heroes of the night” is not just an empty word. Facebook gives an indication where the heroes go on their nocturnal adventures (see link below).
The snow cat has reached the igloo village (2,727 m). It is 6.30 p.m. twilight is chasing the last light of the day. The peak of the Matterhorn hides behind ragged grey clouds. On the horizon, behind the Swiss-Italian border, small quadrangles appear – the black buildings on Testa Grigia (3,480 m). The lights of Täsch village (1,450 m) down in the valley flicker like a mirage.
Fernando Truffer has been driving his snow cat in the Zermatt skiing region for 17 years. He is the boss and the first person to turn to for help. Patrick calls his mobile phone with a technical problem. “Go to the garage, I’ll be there in moment”, says Fernando and turns his machine around. A few minutes later he reaches the garage. The hydraulic hose is fixed in no time at all. “This should hold for the night”, he says and pats his younger colleague on the back.

Out and about in all kinds of weather

“When there is a snow storm, we don’t go out”, explains the experienced driver. “We wait until the weather blows over.” Shifts usually start at 4 p.m. and end at midnight. At 8 p.m., the drivers break for a sandwich. “Sometimes, we don’t finish before 1 or 2 a.m.”, says Fernando smiling. On other days, they have to get up at 5 p.m. in the morning. That doesn’t seem to be a problem, he obviously enjoys his work. The cabin is an oasis of peace, the colleagues go to work together and stay in contact during their shift. Alone in the mountain world - but not really alone.

The rope winch is used for steep patches – the snow cats pull themselves up with the help of a wire rope. Dangerous situations arise from time to time. Depending on the additional equipment carried, a snow cat weighs around eleven tons, which can be a problem on volatile snow surfaces. Recently, a Bully subsided when crossing the Hohtälli and was dragged down the slope by an avalanche. The driver was ok, the snow cat had to be revised. It is just as well that snow cats are equipped with rollover bars. In Zermatt, a team of 35 men prepares 165 km of pistes every night. Accompanying them on the slopes is an experience one shouldn’t miss.