Love, Loneliness & Light: Sunset Piste Basher Ride
Skiing in the Catalan Pyrenees brought the opportunity for novel excursion – a night time piste basher ride. Skiers and boarders can spend the day carving up the snow, and then personally supervise their mashed up runs being rejuvenated. It’s not often you find yourself at the top of a mountain at night, in a powerful metal monster, watching the sun being sucked out of the world. We found it a different and surprisingly intimate experience…
Sunset Piste Basher ride
I saw the piste bashers out at night in ski resorts across Europe and never wondered very much about them. They were simply giant tractors farming frozen white fields, preparing the slopes for the morning’s ski activities. Meanwhile we stayed in the warmth, telling tall stories of icy slopes and champion parallel turns. It never occurred to me that it might be a human experience. Until now.
Now I know that behind the bright lights, rolling caterpillar tracks and metal cages, there are people revving familiar engines and accelerating skilfully into a twilight world. People with no fear of the dark, or the mountain, or themselves. People who can pick a confident path through a maze of endless, endless white. At night. Alone.
Ascent into night
The night calls. The plough crawls.
Smoothing stubborn tracks, closing gaps.
A bright red tank on a blind white bend.
Bullying stubborn banks with a roar,
a desert calm, an almost vertical climb.
An encounter with a friend, a wave of steady hand;
six more, out there, in heated cabs,
scattered across the frozen sand
remoulding their mountains. Engine drone
keeping loneliness at bay.
The start of the night shift
La Molina‘s mountainside stretches ahead of us to a high point of 2272 metres. It will take our caterpillar tracks the best part of an hour of grinding and rolling to reach the peak of Torrent Negra. Our red piste basher, the Moritz and Pirineus ‘Pisterj Bully’ is unfazed by it all as we head up Volta Muntanya Sagrada, a winding track that soon opens out onto to wide ski path which takes us to our first peak at 1656 metres. We pass by the Costa Rasa restaurant, where some of the snow grooming excursions break for dinner, then head onto the Ponent ski slope where we ascend again, to the uppermost ski lift, where mountains like Puigllancada look close enough to touch. Watch this video and see for yourself how easy it is to fall in love with a piste basher at sunset.
The man at the wheel
The driver for tonight’s piste basher ride is Joan Conesa. His cab is like that of a lorry driver; warm and small, with a radio for communication with the outside world. There is so much I want to ask him. Is this his machine of choice, or is it randomly assigned according to what shift he is on? Did he always want to drive a piste basher or did he come on a skiing holiday and hang around looking for work afterwards? Did his father drive one before him? How did he train for the job? But he speaks Catalan, Spanish and French, and we speak English. Stuart has some basic French and I have a few words of Spanish and we piece together some facts.
Joan can’t go wherever he pleases, but works to a schedule, a rota, with half a dozen colleagues and machines. It’s easy work on a calm night like this, but harder when the weather is vicious and visibility poor. But it brings startlingly simple rewards, like the chamois or isard (mountain deer) we stumble across high on the stony hillside. Or the sunset, on the far mountain that resembles the tornado in the Wizard of Oz…
The hill stirs. The engine roars.
He cuts it dead, puts a finger to his lips.
Points out something in the trees. Smiles.
Whispers a name in Catalan. Accelerates again.
Above the line of green. Untangling piste,
opening path, pushing past post,
green, blue, red, black,
lift straps flap in the wind.
On far horizons others like him
strip the horizon. Slip
icy tracks into metal jaw
wiping flaw and easing flow.
Surrounded by a fairy tale glow
Snow White turns pink, grey,
black, as night consumes the day.
Sunset at the summit
Joan and his colleagues take passengers on piste basher rides on a Saturday night. He seems pleased we have come out with him tonight. This sunset is special, a treat, even for him. Up at the top of Torrent Negra, our highest point, he beckons us out of the cab, tells us to wander. I joyously spin and jump to see the full 360 snowy panorama, Stuart snaps the fading light, Cameron rolls down the hill, Matthew chucks snowballs, Hannah throws herself in and out of a snow bank. The metallic lump of ski lift looks like additional sun, but can’t compete with what lies beyond. Layer upon layer of endless sky and mountain. Streaks of orange and pink. Tips of gold. One of the mountains seems to be sucking the light out of the sky.
This still, silent mountain is ours. We were up here skiing earlier today but it looks unrecognisable now. I can’t imagine other people up here with us, I can’t even imagine the lift moving. Daylight is fading and the snow has increasing hues of blue. And Joan needs to get on with his job. I climb back in to the cab and the kids and Stuart haul themselves back up the ladder into the cabin behind. It’s hot after the cold evening air and the sharp wind blowing around the mountain. Like a cocoon.
The light fades. The dusk falls.
We descend. The machine’s red beams
lend ghostly light as the piste doctors
lift the wrinkled skin, without the need for
needle or filler. They smooth plump tracks
like chalet girls changing crumpled beds.
Exorcising crystal ghosts, no zig zag scar
or criss cross curve of ski or board remains.
Wide lanes are purged and swept
time fades, minutes pass, this silent world
is stilled. We are all that’s left.
The Twilight Zone
It’s a bit like when you become a new parent. For a while the twilight world is unsettling but then you get used to it, and it’s normal to be squinting in the dark and almost nodding off to sleep every few minutes. Shapes are vague, and then something comes into focus. A night skier comes out of nowhere. What is he doing up here? Following in our tracks, revelling in the fresh snow?
The blanket spread. The tips of trees.
Leaves curl like Lowry’s smoking roofs
or the ringlets of girls. Endless track
switching forward and back.
A solitary skier tucks in behind,
a kid following a milk float,
unearthly milky bar glow flicking
pale shadow onto whitewashed wall
throwing snow into flashing light,
fine rain, the gentle spray of night.
Has Joan seen the skier? Does this happen a lot? I want to ask our driver if he’s lonely. How can he not be? Or is his snow tractor his companion? Does he always feel safe in it? The chatter on the radio is reassuring. Especially in the dark. No other snow ploughs cross our paths now. This mountain seems ours alone. We are descending steeply. Through sign language Joan reassures me that his machine can cope with gradients up to 40 degrees. The lights of the resort are upon us. He stops, then reverses and creates us our own white carpet with a swift and impressive flourish of his skills. He helps us down. And hugs us warmly. I hug him back; this brave creature of the night. I am grateful he has taken me into his strange, quiet, beautiful world. Happy to have done an hour of his night shift. When I ski tomorrow, I will see those pistes in a different light. Those blank pages will be little works of art. His personal sketches of the mountain, a mountain he has wiped clean, ready for us to scribble on with skis when the sun rises again.
Dark white knight
The mist clears. The excursion ends.
He helps us out, turns the key again.
Grins and grinds his machine uphill,
bashing the sleet, empty piste
and deserted slope; his alone
to groom and stitch and comb.
Turning pleat and ridge
into smooth ice sheet.
Mountain becomes mirror. Ready to catch
first glimpse of a fresh new Catalan sun.
We run, hearts beating, as he retreats
back to his beat, and the night,
his day job far from done.
If you are planning a trip to La Molina or La Masella and would like to book a date with the snow groomer on a Saturday night then contact the resort office by emailing email@example.com. A ride on the piste basher costs around 25 euros per person.
Disclosure Note: Our thanks to Costa Brava Girona Patronat de Turisme, La Molina ski resort and Joan Conesa for helping us to bring you this story. The views, experience, poetry, video and photography are, as ever, all entirely our own.