You’ve got up early, had a coffee and scoffed some toast, and emerged onto the slopes to make the most of the fresh grooming and the lack of crowds. When you’re standing at the front of the lift line first thing in the morning, waiting for the chairlift to open, it’s easy to wonder why it takes so long to get things going.
If it has snowed overnight, there’s a pretty good chance the de-icing team has been hard at work removing ice from the lift towers, cables and chairs, a huge job that has its share of challenges and stimulation.
Michael is one of this specialised team of lift operators. Comprising only 10-12 of the hundred or more lift operations team (otherwise known jokingly amongst themselves as ‘Vertical Ascension Specialists’), the De-icers start as lift attendants and lift operators before working their way up. Their training includes a ‘Working at Heights’ course, so it’s not for everyone.
“Some mornings you’d rather not be up the towers, but someone’s got to do it,” says Michael, who in fact loves his role, as is obvious from the beautiful pictures he posts regularly on his Instagram profile (@mwvardy).
Ironically, Michael is from Queensland, where he works as a tour guide on Fraser Island. The common factor? Travel and the outdoors. He loves being outside, in the elements, enjoying the incredible experiences that Australia’s landscapes have to offer.
He caught the snowboarding bug at 28, and in the off-season you might find him in Japan. This is his second season at Hotham.
The southern melt / freeze cycle
De-icing is something that is actually done a lot more in Australia and NZ than in northern hemisphere alpine resorts. We have a regular melt/freeze cycle, which seems to be unique to the southern hemisphere.
“It doesn’t really happen overseas,” says Michael. “When it rains or snows overnight, ice builds up on the metal components of the chairlifts.”
That’s when the De-icers go to work.
“We go out most mornings, and it’s not all the towers, just the top ones. Summit, Drift and Road Runner usually need to be cleared if there has been snow overnight. Keoghs and Orchard regularly need to be done. It’s rare for the lower lifts like Blue Ribbon to need de-icing.”
The team has to ascend each pole, some of which are twenty metres tall, to remove the ice, often needing to de-ice the metal ladders before they can even get to the top of the tower.
Michael doesn’t mind the early starts. From 6.30am he and the team are ski-mobiled to the top of the mountain to work their way down the lift line.
“It beats commuting in a car!” he laughs. “It’s an adrenalin rush, especially in bad weather. Some days you feel like you’re going to be blown off the mountain.”
This physically demanding job requires the team to use a de-icing hammer to break the ice away. The team usually works in pairs, one per tower leapfrogging each other and keeping an eye out for each other’s safety. They use safety harnesses and are in constant radio communication with each other and the rest of the team. Three of the team managers are trained in evacuation, so if someone slips or gets into trouble, help is close by.
Watching the sunrise over the mountains or seeing the peaks rise out of the morning fog are sights that will never get old for Michael. There’s also the very nice bonus of being able to ride the lift lines a couple of times on powder days, before anyone else gets down there.
The job is never predictable. “Some days you can tap the ladder and the ice all falls off, other days you have to bash every bit off.”
Once enough ice has been removed to enable the chairlift to turn, each individual chair has to be de-iced in the lift station. As a chair comes into the lift station, the ice is removed, then the ice has to be shovelled out of the way before the next chair comes through. When the chairs are de-iced, the platforms at the top and bottom lift stations have to be dug. It’s an incredible amount of work that happens without most skiers and riders being aware of the effort involved to get them riding.
When you look at Michael’s photos of iced-up chairs, it’s hard to believe the infrastructure can hold the weight, but he says the system is designed to deal with the weight, using standards developed and used in Canada.
There are lots of safety systems and back-ups in the infrastructure too. Every chairlift is different and the team is trained on each specific lift, with refresher training every year.
“You can tell the difference between the types of chairlifts – the diesel ones, like Heavenly Valley and Big D, are noisier. Audi Quattro and Road Runner are electric. They all have diesel back-up motors for evacuation.”
The combined lifting capacity of all the lifts across the resort is 24,485 people per hour, and keeping the lifts running safely is always top priority, but closing a lift is always a last resort. There are many ways to run a lift safely in adverse conditions, and while it’s annoying when lifts run more slowly or don’t load singles in high wind conditions, these steps do ensure visitors can keep riding.
Passion for Hotham
When asked one of the favourite questions at Hotham – if you could put a lift in anywhere, where would you put it? – Michael hardly has to think about it.
“Village to Golden Point – a chair with a mid-loading station, like the Keogh’s / Orchard chair,” he says.
Favourite run? Brockhoff. Michael loves the inbound riding but also gets out for some back-country skiing, enjoying the technical aspects of reading the conditions out of bounds and planning his trip.
In fact, Michael is passionate about most aspects of his job, and like so many other people at Hotham feels lucky to be out on this incredible mountain every day.
Photo credit: Michael Vardy, Mount Hotham Skiing Company
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