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Just call him king of the mountain

Master pistebasher Oscar Bonzom at Villars swissinfo.ch

The yellow headlights grow brighter in the fog. The growling red-and-black Pisten Bully grinds to a halt. Amidst the driving blizzard a door opens and I climb inside.

This content was published on December 26, 2011 - 12:21
Simon Bradley in Villars, swissinfo.ch

swissinfo.ch spent a recent snowy day with Villars’ piste-basher supremo Oscar Bonzom, as he and his team flatten, shape and groom the slopes of the western Swiss ski resort ahead of the arrival of hordes of Christmas skiers – or so they hope.

At the top of Roc d’Orsay, one of the highest points in the resort, it’s a white-out.

After a day of rain, snow is now falling in abundance above 1,500 metres, weighing down the pine trees and gathering in thick drifts as it is blown around by a steadily building wind.

Snowflakes crash against the windscreen and slide south before being flicked aside by swishing rubber blades. Bonzom squints as he tries to make out the contours of the white playground.

“You see much better going uphill rather than downhill,” he comments as we set off.

During the busy Christmas-February period he coordinates 15 piste-bashers, young and old, who work in shifts through the night from 4.30pm - when the lifts shut - to 9am to prepare the slopes.

Today the pressure is on. After an exceptionally warm November and early December, six of them have been up since 5am grooming the first of Villars’ 125 kilometres of slopes in time for the imminent arrival of thousands of visitors.

Bonzom seems unperturbed, however, as this is his 15th season and he has seen worse storms and less snow.

At the top of Roc d’Orsay we start by pushing a pile of snow into a tunnel several metres from the main piste. This is one of dozens of stocks of white gold dotted around the resort that will be used later in the season to fill holes, build ramps and spread over the thinning slopes.

Back and forth

Nearby, a mechanical beetle forms a long low bank. The strong wind will blow snow over the lip which will slowly gather, creating a new layer on the slope.

“If we don’t build them all the snow gets blown away. The wind can be our enemy or our friend,” says Bonzom.

It’s now time to groom the Petit Chamoissaire drag lift. The ratrac moves slowly back and forth downhill beneath the lift cable, flattening and compacting the fresh snow to form a solid platform five metres wide.

“This is our insurance for a good season; if we don’t do it we’ll be closed in April,” he says.

“You need a minimum of 40 centimetres of snow to work with because once you drive over the snow it flattens to 20cm and then with the tracks it leaves a layer of 10-20cm. You need to go back and forth about three times.”

Learning curve

Flashing lights slowly approach and two colleagues wave as they pass by.

“That’s the new guy driving. See that black mark? That’s earth he’s just scraped up by suddenly turning the steering wheel; it’s easy to do when you’re learning,” says Bonzom.

A novice piste-basher has to produce only a valid car driving licence to start work. That’s the easy part. Thereafter it’s all about learning on the job.

On average it takes about four or five seasons before drivers are proficient in handling the SFr500,000 ($533,105) machine, its complex manoeuvrable ploughs and other equipment.

“The difficult thing is the bumps and moguls. You have to break them up, fill them in correctly and get the right height of the snow. It’s all about experience and feeling.”

Milking it

As we drive down the empty slope past Lac Noir, Bonzom points at the steep, rugged terrain above.

“That’s where I take my cows in summer on holiday,” he says.

When he is not bashing the slopes, Bonzom works as a dairy farmer in summer, based in the nearby village of Chesières.

“They are two very complementary professions; I like both seasons and love working with nature. I love the freedom of working in the mountains, arriving at the top when it’s all white and you are the first one to flatten everything. It’s not about remodelling nature but being the first one to enjoy it.”

His colleagues are a mix of farmers, painters and decorators, and factory workers.

“It’s easy to find people but the job and irregular hours have to suit, and living in the resort is not easy, especially finding an apartment with the high prices.”

Precision grooming

Skiing has changed a great deal over recent years and the piste-bashers are the first to notice and have to adapt accordingly.

“We have to pay a lot more attention to widen the slopes as people ski a lot more and faster than in the past, but we are limited ecologically,” he explains. “And the rate at which skiers are taken up on the lifts has tripled so there is a lot more wear and tear on the slopes, which suffer. They’ve reached their limit.”

Suddenly the fog descends again.

“Don’t worry, we’ve got GPS,” says the boss.

He opens a laptop fixed in the middle of the modern snug cab and points at a map on the screen covered with lines, dots and coloured blocks.

“That’s my colleague, number 75. Each one has their own colour. We just did all that in red. The other pushed that snow there in blue. And the purple bit has been done with the winch.”

The computer programme helps him and his team perfect the art of piste-grooming. After mapping the slopes, lifts, pylons, buildings, snow canons, and other man-made and natural obstacles, the system enables him to follow their work in real time and gives exact details of the height of the snow.

“It’s especially useful with snow cannons when you are spreading out the snow they have produced as the terrain here is very irregular,” he says.

“If I go skiing and see a patch of bare grass I can put an asterisk and comment on the map so a colleague can fill it in when they drive past in their machine.”

Villars

The holiday resort of Villars-sur-Ollon is situated at 1,300m, on a sunny south-facing terrace high above the Rhone Valley in the heart of the Vaud Alps. It enjoys stunning views of the Dents-du-Midi and the Mont Blanc massif and as far as Lake Geneva.

Its smaller neighbour Gryon is a little lower down, on the more easterly side of the valley. Together, they make up the holiday destination of Villars-Gryon.

The skiing area of Villars incorporates the two smaller areas of Villars/Bretaye and Gryon and is also linked via the route over Le Meilleret with the Les Diablerets skiing area, including a glacier skiing area at 3000m. Altogether, this creates a skiing arena with 44 lifts and 125 km of ski slopes. In addition there are three snowparks, a snow kindergarten, 44 km of cross-country skiing trails, sledging runs and winter walking routes. In summer the main activities are hiking, mountain biking and golf.

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