Adventures in Piste-Bashing
Updated: Oct 31, 2018
By Caitlin Kennedy
Everyone is pretty curious about piste-bashers, the mysterious creatures of the night that are such night owls, you'll be lucky to catch a glimpse of one by daylight. We managed to find one to pin down for a ride and an interview.
Joel, chief basher of pistes, was to be my chauffeur in his shiny new machine. Clearly I was to be thrown in at the deep end, because our destination was the Face, ie the steepest piste in the Espace Killy. There are 22 piste-bashers and each has their own stretch of turf, which they plow nightly until about one o'clock in the morning. Joel has been doing the job since he was 18 (he’s now 50) and still gets a kick out of it. I can completely understand why; it’s pretty thrilling driving round the mountain at dusk, when it’s completely devoid of people.
I was interested to know whether bashing pistes was ever nerve-racking or dangerous, to which Joel replied that if conditions were too bad, they didn’t go out. In a white out though, he said it took more concentration, but the new navigation systems made life a lot easier. They are pretty swanky; the control system looked like the world’s coolest play station. There are literally buttons for everything. The joystick on the right controls the height and angle of the plower (the front bit that would be a mouth if piste-bashers featured in Thomas the Tank Engine). And the arm-rest on the left controlled the speed at which we were moving.
Whilst I was busy oggling the sunset and trying not to press any buttons, unbeknownst to me, my skis had started slipping out of place on their precarious position on the plougher. I held my tongue because; 1) My French doesn't stretch to saying “my skis, which are the most important things I own, are slipping and if they fall and are mulched, I might have to kill you”, and 2) I didn’t want to interrupt Joel’s work making the pistes perfect. But as the gradient steepened, they suddenly lurched out of place but just in time, Joel noticed, stopped the basher and I may have let out a tiny bit of wee.
I thought this was going to be the scariest part of the journey. I was wrong. On the first steep section of Le Face, we stopped and Joel proclaimed, “Il y a un problem”. Now even the most unaccomplished French speaker would shit a brick if they heard the driver of a fairly hefty piece of machinery say this whilst on a near vertical slope. Usually, when the slope is really steep, the piste-bashers have to be attached by an overhead wire to a winch system to prevent them from toppling over. From the rapid radio conversation that followed, I gleaned that this winch system was now no longer working. Apparently in the 32 years Joel had spent bashing pistes, this had never happened to him before and we agreed that I was a bad omen and shouldn’t be allowed in a piste-basher again. Joel lept out of the cab and started doing technical things with a wrench. It didn’t work. When he came back, he was breathing pretty heavily, which I took to mean he was panicking. In actual fact, it was just years of chain smoking taking its toll, but not realising this, I now felt even less at ease. This was lessened when I got to sit in the control chair for a while as one can't help feeling like a pretty big deal.
It was now getting quite dark outside and you could see all the other machines in the distance as twinkling bobbing lights scattered across the sky. We weren’t going anywhere though, which had the happy consequence of me getting to Joel lots of annoying questions. For instance, I found out that in summer, he does something completely different and drives a digger.
After being stuck for half an hour, with all the power off and still no sign of the mechanic, the time came to abandon ship (& Joel) and ski down Le Face in the pitch-black dark. A fittingly exhilarating end to a fascinating evening. All in all, the experience was a far cry from what I anticipated of the night, but it definitely gave me an interesting insight into what being stuck in the dark when the apocalypse comes will be like.