Australian alpine areas have enjoyed bumper snowfalls this week, but little is known about all the work that goes on behind the scenes to keep ski resorts in good shape throughout winter.
The snow groomer
Each night, when the chair lifts close and the sun goes down at Mount Hotham Alpine Resort, a team of ‘groomers’ get behind the wheels of their huge snow cats to flatten out the trails.
Jesse Ruming heads a crew of snow cat operators who work through the night to groom the ski runs so that by morning they are in good shape for skiers and snowboarders.
“We’re kind of like possums; we only come out at night,” Mr Ruming said.
“The Kassbohrer PistenBullys [snow groomers] are a mix between a grader and a bulldozer, with a blade at the front to flatten out the slopes and a tiller at the back to create the perfect corduroy.”
Some are fitted with winches with 1,200 metres of cable to keep them on their tracks on the steeper slopes.
“We hook onto an anchor point concreted into the ground, and the four-tonne winch stops us from sliding and also brings us back up,” Mr Ruming said.
The 26-year-old learnt to groom in Canada where there is a lot more snow to work with.
“Where I learnt to groom at Big White it was very rocky so you needed a lot of snow to cover the rocks, but here in Australia we have snow-making and we might not get any natural snow for months,” he said.
“We can be working with 10 centimetres of snow and we’re trying to build a run and keep it going.
“That’s why Australian groomers are world-renowned because sometimes we have to work with nothing.”
Considered Mount Hotham’s creatures of the night, the groomers can often see a sunset and a sunrise within the same shift.
“You know you’ve had a big shift when you see the sun come up,” Mr Ruming said.
The ski instructor
Patience is a prerequisite for the job of ski instructor.
Ryan Cockburn grew up in the coastal hamlet of Mallacoota, in Victoria’s far east and was introduced to skiing as a teenager.
This year is his tenth season working at Mount Hotham and when it finishes in October he will head overseas for the Northern Hemisphere’s ski season.
“This job’s taken me to Japan, Canada and America — it’s been awesome,” Mr Cockburn said.
“I’m looking to go over to Germany and Austria at the end of the Australian season but we’ll see how that goes.”
The 28-year-old has just completed the highest level of certification as a ski instructor and said while the overseas travel provides a hint of glamour, ski instructing is also hard work.
“It is tough. If we have a poor season it can be difficult to get the hours and the work,” Mr Cockburn said.
But he said for the last three years at Hotham there was skiing well into October which gave instructors more of an opportunity to make a decent wage.
“The more you go through the certification process, the more likely you are to get shifts,” he said.
“Much to the ire of my parents I’m not exactly killing it, but I’m having a really great time and that’s what the trade-off is.”
Mr Cockburn said he gets a lot of fulfillment from his role on the snow fields.
“When you’ve taught the same kids for a few years you get that sense of pride when you see how far they’ve progressed,” he said.
“I wake up excited to go to work every morning and I’ve never had that in any other job that I’ve done.”
The Hotham institution
Zirky’s is a Mount Hotham mainstay.
It was set up 40 years ago as a small snack bar and ski hire business by the mountain’s elder statesman, Peter Zirknitzer, 84, and his wife Heather.
Over the years it has expanded to include a restaurant, cafe, ski hire and retail sports shop and 28 privately-owned apartments.
Annelies Zirknitzer took over the reins of her parents’ business four years ago.
She said making money during a short season can be challenging and like other industries, the weather is the biggest influence on the business.
“What will the snow be like? Will lifts be open? Is the sun shining? Those things change the demands on the business, so trying to roster and plan for all of those things is really difficult,” Ms Zirknitzer said.
She said finding great seasonal employees is also a challenge, as well as managing stock in an isolated location.
“Getting our stock up here in a timely manner is difficult, so you have to have lots of stock in storage, but be able to wind down with not much left at the end of the season.”
Ms Zirknitzer has two children, aged six and nine.
The family live in Albury during the summer and move up to Mount Hotham for the ski season where the children attend school at Dinner Plain.
Ms Zirknitzer said she was also educated as a ‘child of the snow’.
“We did school by correspondence and then in my last couple of years of primary school we got a school at Hotham because a second family arrived to make up a class of seven,” she said.
Ms Zirknitzer said her team works at ‘full throttle’ for three and a half months.
“You go from nothing to full capacity — from zero to 100 per cent and when we get to the end we fall in a heap and have a good sleep.”
What does she love about the job?
“I love being in the snow and I love the social part of it,” she said.
“People are on holidays with their friends and families and most people are in a really good mood.”
The lift operator
At 6.30am the team of lift operators — or lifties as they are commonly known — at Mount Hotham Alpine Resort meet at the Summit trainer area to work out which of the mountain’s 13 lifts will need de-icing to get them spinning for the day.
There are 107 lift towers and 1,033 chairs and pomas with a capacity to transport 24,485 skiers and snowboarders every hour.
It is not a job for the acrophobic; some of the lifts are up to 20m high, making for a tough climb on a cold morning where the average low temperature is minus 3.2 degrees Celcius.
“We climb the lift towers and hit all the ice off all the moving parts including the towers and bull wheels,” Lift Operations manager, Dan Gough said.
“It’s a pretty good way to start the day; you get some great sunrises.”
Mr Gough has worked 11 seasons at Mount Hotham and another two at Mount Washington on Vancouver Island off Canada’s Pacific coast.
He oversees a 99-strong team at Mount Hotham which is also responsible for safely loading and unloading skiers and boarders on the chairlifts.
“Some of the beginner areas are pretty fun to work at, [with] lots of new skiers and boarders who come up and make your day go pretty quickly,” he said.
When lifts cannot open due to strong winds the lifties conduct half-hourly wind checks.
“As soon as the winds die down we try to open those lifts as soon as we can,” Mr Gough said.
Customer relations is also a big part of the role.
“We see the same guests over and over again throughout the day so it’s important that every liftie acknowledges them with a friendly smile or by saying hello.”
Bill Barker has been patrolling the slopes of Mount Hotham for 26 years.
He came for one day 31 years ago and never left.
Mr Barker manages a team of 65 patrollers including 25 paid staff and 40 volunteers.
Heavy snowfalls have prompted authorities to issue avalanche warnings for the back country of Australia’s alpine resorts in the past week.
“In the morning if there has been significant amounts of snow then we go out and do avalanche control work,” Mr Barker said.
“We create avalanches before the public get out there to make sure it’s safe.”
Avalanche control can involve closing off areas within the resort boundary and setting off bombs in trickier terrain to release the snow.
Each morning the patrollers assess each ski run for hazards.
“If we do find any [hazards] we put up appropriate signage and ropes,” Mr Barker said.
But accidents are unavoidable and the main part of the job for the patrollers is applying first aid to the injured.
“We attend to accidents, stabilise the patient and get them to the medical centre if they require further treatment,” Mr Barker said.
“Tweaked knees, shoulder dislocations and concussions are the most common injuries here.
“On a normal day we could respond to 20 call-outs and on a busy one we can do 40.”
Mr Barker is also responsible for penning an early morning snow report that has gained a cult following.
He laughed when asked what he meant by the word ‘mizzle’ in a recent report.
“Yeah, a friend came up with that one in the pub the other night … it stands for miserable drizzle.”