Manfred Hochmuth is the on-slope manager at the Hintertuxer Gletscher, Austria’s only year-round ski resort. Wheeling groomers on icy pitches is his trade, where winter, weather, and wind can gang up with lethal intention. Operating on the roof of the Tyrolean Alps, under the mantle of night, encapsulated alone in the cockpit, with six hundred horsepower in grip, it’s no ordinary job.
The winter of 2019-2020 marks Hochmuth’s 36th year of work at the Hintertuxer Gletscher ski area. He started at 15 years old, working the lifts. Despite growing up within sight of the glacier, Hochmuth still marvels at his mountain jobsite, describing it “like a totally different planet.”
For the trail groomers days can be so bad that for hours after a shift, they see only white.
At 5’11”, he’s taller than the typical Tyrolean of his generation, but his “Tuxa” dialect is as thick as old-growth. Rangy, long-striding, he often leans forward, as if his transmission lacks neutral. He also possesses what German-speakers call Einfluss, a sufficiency of personality and leadership that others follow, regardless of title or pay.
It’s no ordinary job, whether on a cloud-scratcher of the Alps or at a family-run ski area in Montana. On the surface, literally, the task is the same: applying equipment and skill to render the best opportunities for skiing and snowboarding from the available conditions. Bulldozing over the thin spots, bulldozing out the drifts, snowmaking operations, maintaining signage and marking new hazards, plus lots of grooming laps and equipment maintenance—it’s all in a day’s work.
Where the skiing surface meets the ancient ice below, the similarities end. A glacier inhales winter, gaining strength; then in the warmer months, it shrinks with runoff like bleeding. This glacier suffers surface abrasions like any ski area, but also wounds like those from a sharp weapon. Hundreds of gashes may cut a glacier’s surface in reduction. At the Hintertuxer Gletscher, they’re striving to present the best conditions possible for paying guests, and that includes protecting the longevity of the glacier itself.
During storm-cycles, the crew fires up at 4 a.m. after sleeping high on the mountain at the resort’s Tuxer-Ferner-Haus, an expansive complex with the grooming garage in its belly. Lodging at 8,700 feet above sea level is sensible, given the aerie workplace and a first objective to prepare all the runs by 9 a.m., when the ski area opens.
10-to-12-hour days are the norm. In addition to the aforementioned grooming operations, Hochmuth and crew lead all first-responder efforts, coordinate the many off-season racing teams, and they ferry groups and equipment for any on-slope marketing efforts (examples from this fall include a music video and an advertisement with a dog-sled team). Managing fuel distribution is also a priority and a complex endeavor when the garage hangs 3,800 feet above the valley. All this occurs in a serious alpine realm where temps may drop to -25F.
At hand is a bevy of equipment, the cream being the 16 grooming machines, including the state-of-the-art PistenBully 600, German-made and powered by a Cummins diesel the size of a washer/dryer set. With a huge plow, the beef to pull 14 metric tons, a 20-foot-wide grooming implement, and a winch extending (get this) over 1,000 yards. Hochmuth’s “Bully-Crew” includes three full-time mountainside mechanics handling over 90 percent of the equipment service needs, including broken tank treads, electrical problems, and hydraulics repair.
Experience is silver for such an operation, a fine leader as good as gold, and Hochmuth hasn’t lost any luster. Upbeat and engaging despite the mighty workload, he only seemed bothered by a few bad actors among the popular rise of ski touring in Tyrol: “They go up in the afternoon, when we’re working to prepare the runs for the next day, they’re in the way, fouling everything, all gratis,” he said, hands waving in disgust. “And when something goes wrong, they hold the company responsible.”
A glacier inhales winter, gaining strength; then in the warmer months, it shrinks with runoff like bleeding.
Another concern is finding new team members who are capable. “Ever more difficult,” Hochmuth said. In his youth, “This (work) was for us like the heavens.” He describes his long-standing coworkers as having “a heart for the job” and who are “as family.”
Clear days are best for skiing the glacier and the least stress for the grooming crew. On a brilliant afternoon in early-January, my view from the mountaintop platform at 10,662 feet spanned over much of the Tyrolean province, with glimpses of landmarks beyond—the Dachstein group to the east in Salzburg’s province, westward to the nearest Swiss summits, and to the south, the Italian Dolomites breached like whales on the horizon. On a perfect day, the Adriatic Sea is in sight.
Of the location on the spine of the Alps, Hochmuth said, “The elevation and the weather are extreme, but wind is the most dangerous.” For the trail groomers—Pistenraupenfahrer—days can be so bad that for hours after a shift, they see only white. In such dreck, drivers fallback on memory and feel, gleaned over years of experience. But visitors haven’t developed those resources. When poor conditions convene on the glacier and their field of view gets erased, communication follows, then logic, and sometimes a person’s life.
The last such incident occurred in November. Visitors from China, late in the day when many accidents occur, lost track of one from their number. Once alerted, officials tracked his day-pass to determine the last lift ridden. The surrounding zone they shut down, rolled out the PistenBullys with every light probing the murk, while another crew searched and called out. When they found the man, Hochmuth described his condition as “total unterkuhlt,” slang for serious hypothermia. His survival, without rescue, was down to minutes.
Running north, the Tuxer Valley is a plunge between robust mountains. Olperer at 11,404 feet casts the highest shadow and is guarded by two rugged neighbors—to the northeast the Gefrorene-Wand-Spitze (“frozen wall peak”) and to the southwest, one long, sheer cliff and high ridges under the Grosser Kaserer. Framing in between are Hintertuxer’s 60 kilometers of runs and 21 lifts. The base is far below, 6,482 down from Olperer’s summit cross. With the only low-angle snowfields far above sea level, it’s a fortress of cold.
Attracted by the year-round goods, racers and teams representing 57 nations traveled to Hintertuxer Gletscher during a recent May-to-November stretch. Training on snow, chasing the perfect turn, one with ever more speed and power than the last, all while the rest of the northern hemisphere pursues activities better suited to swimwear.
The universal attraction for racing teams isn’t simply the glacier or the early-season access; several glaciated ski areas exist in Austria. Conditions are superior at Hintertuxer because the ski area is open year-round. It’s a plain fact that, if left alone in the off-season, their skiable surface would wilt.
Snow preservation at Hintertuxer starts with grooming, a daily cleanse of dust and particulates, naughty little things that blow in from as far away as the Sahara and collect heat. Also windrows of snow, carved out by the PistenBullys, are maintained at a dozen key points around the glacier, shielding the runs from winds that could otherwise scour the surface. As another proactive example, Hochmuth’s crew in spring rolls out huge white tarps, up to 200 feet wide. Altogether, they cover 85 acres of snow. It may sound absurd, but by warm weather’s end, an average of 9-10 feet of snow depth is retained, when compared to adjacent areas left unprotected.
The Tuxer is one of four watersheds descending from near the Austria-Italian border to form the Ziller River, its genesis another several thousand feet down from the town of Hintertux. In the first half of January this year, pastures near the source of the Ziller at Mayrhofen have been clear of snow, even greening up. Officials canceled the town’s annual horse-sleigh race on New Years Day, and the cross-country loop has made few appearances in recent years.
Above, the hanging Tuxer Valley is deep in winter slumber this January. In spite of its elevation and shaded faces, however, the glacier is in decline, too. Officials say that the thickest ice is now 260 feet, whereas Hochmuth recalls from earlier in his career when its depth topped 390 feet. Meanwhile, the tail edge of the glacier has in that time retreated a half-mile to just above the Tuxer-Ferner-Haus.
Tourism in Tirol is a primary artery for the economy, fostering many cottage industries (including thousands of rental cottages) and jobs almost beyond count. Hochmuth works on behalf of Zillertaler Gletscherbahn GmbH, the largest employer of the Tuxer Valley with over well over 300 on staff. State officials report that 45-50 million visitors come to Tyrol annually, amounting to over 60 overnight-stays per every individual resident. The summer hiking in the area’s huge Zillertaler Alpen Naturpark is mind-blowing, mountain biking is rolling stronger every year, and the climbing is classic. But skiers and snowboarders shell out loads more per visit.
Any blow to winter tourism in Tirol goes to a vital organ, one responsible for over 18 percent of their economy.
Late fall, ironic though it may seem, is the busiest time of year at this resort. By the beginning of December, other ski areas are opening all over Tyrol and the Alps. Hintertuxer’s comparatively remote location finds the runs untrammeled and the liftlines short in mid-winter, even as conditions peak. To visit the ski area from the nearest city, the provincial capital of Innsbruck, one would travel past 12 other ski resorts.
Like the arc of a perfect turn, Hintertuxer’s challenge of matching all those forces to the ski run falls on Hochmuth. His is the final word on trail conditions. The 4 a.m. shift comes at a time some tourists consider better suited to a final round of schnapps. The après scene is lively in Tyrol, too, but the quality of the ski runs is what they’re really selling at Hintertuxer Gletscher.
“Guests simply don’t accept less than the best,” Hochmuth said.
The task-list is immense, the workplace otherworldly, but the man at the helm is in the prime of his career. He grew up amidst the ferocity and splendor of the Alps. Having heard the salty exploits of grandfathers, stout and mettlesome men who shouldered through many decades of rural labor, Hochmuth knows that a Tyrolean either drifts apart from the mountain or works with it.
Top photo courtesy of the author.