My knees vibrated like fragile branches under the weight of a squirrel. I ascended the ladder cautiously on our first training run. I was panicking like the fattest pig on slaughter day. Out of my comfort zone from the word “go”. Deep breaths, deep breaths. Squeal.
Since when do pigs fly?
I perched, frozen in motion, at the top of the tower. There was a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was hesitating a bit too long. By this stage it was resoundingly clear to anyone watching that I was terrified.
What am I doing up here?
I had been chosen to be part of a team, made up of select resort lift operators, who’s job it is to manually de-ice the chairlifts and other equipment at Whakapapa ski-field in the North Island of New Zealand.
Why do you need to de-ice, you’re probably wondering – it’s a ski field after all, shouldn’t they be used to a bit of snow and ice?
Ice build up occurs when water droplets in the air, freeze on contact with a cold object – this is called rime ice. Mt Ruapehu is particularly susceptible to it, due to its central location on the narrow island, putting it at the mercy of weather patterns travelling over the coastal waters.
Rime ice grows layer on layer, creating rock hard ice, which sticks like cement.
Most ski resorts suffer a bit of ice build up, which usually becomes the responsibility of the maintenance team to keep under control. Ruapehu is said to have the largest rime ice build up anywhere in the world. Having worked there, I can corroborate on this claim. The job of de-icing is such an undertaking at Ruapehu that they require dedicated teams to manage it. There does exist purpose designed systems that chairlifts use to prevent and remove ice – heat, special antifreeze lubricants and motion, and this may be enough for most European resorts and the like, with a naturally drier atmosphere. Mt Ruapehu is another beast entirely, the most effective way to do this is still the old fashioned way – people power. For this, trustee wooden bats and aluminium hammers are employed with a range of motions unchanged since before the Palaeolithic period.
The ice build up can get so big and heavy that it can damage equipment. A common hazard includes cables that pick up ice like a kofta kebab on a skewer, de-railing it from the sheaves (rollers that it runs on).
The cable can end up laid on the ground from end to end or in sections between towers, and often buried by fallen snow, this can be one of the most dangerous processes in de-icing. Under tension, the cable releases like a sling shot and is liable to cause seriously injury, or worse. The whole ordeal can take many hours of arduous effort, with the utmost care and attention required to protect the crew at work, but this also leaves them exposed to the elements for extended periods.
To give you an idea of how heavy the ice can get – in 2010, two lift towers collapsed under the weight of ice at Turoa.
Because of this, de-icers work through the storm, removing ice as it builds up. This means de-icers are exposed to extreme weather; unforgiving cold, high winds and low visibility. The refreeze moves over the landscape in a white fog like an apocalyptic reckoning, a cloud of moisture attaching itself to everything in sight – the chairlift, equipment and the de-icers themselves.
This is the behind the scenes effort that goes into making Ruapehu and similar resorts all over the world safe and operational, before the public ever gets to bite their skis into the freshly groomed corduroy. With that, a special mention should go out to the diligent preparation of the pistes, a labour of love through the night, by the beating heart of every mountain – the snowcat drivers.
You can read more about Mt Ruapehu and what led up to this moment in Times of Travel: Mt Ruapehu.
My legs felt weak and lifeless. I timidly gripped at the cold steel, which penetrated the gloves, closing the distance from my chest. Doubt had been foreboding in the lead up. Conquering this fear wouldn’t necessarily have elevated me to a higher plane of existence (even though it quite literally would have), I knew that, but, this was a chance to untether myself from a shackle I’d be dragging from childhood.
I’m scared of two things unconditionally – deep bodies of water, and heights.
Now, was an opportunity – face a fear, which I can’t control. Mind over matter. If I could teach myself to control my urge to take flight – if I could fight it, something which feels so innately unnatural and distressing, then – If I could do this, what else could I do?
Plus, I wanted to be part of it. There was prestige in it too – you were a de-icer – part of a specially selected crew – picked because somebody thought you were tough enough to handle it. I didn’t want to let that somebody down. I didn’t want to let myself down. For pride or for duty, I pushed on, fraught with perturbation.
I had just watched the first newbie glide up the ladder, clipping his safety harness into each rung as he went. He was a rock climber, and he made it all look effortless, transitioning his points of contact and clipping in with ease. He pirouetted up high on the cable, like a acrobat on a tightrope.
I struggled to reach the top rung of the ladder without feinting and ending up dangling in my harness like a cartoon spider. Success! I had suppressed the urge to be back on the ground – now all I had to do was move.
I went through the motions methodically, making mechanical adjustments as if following a blueprint. Step 1, use hand to unclasp harness from attachment point on top rung of ladder, step 2, raise arm to attachment point above the assembly, step 3, panic, step 4, reduce panic to a gently simmer. Rest.
After much internal foreplay, I had managed to stand erect atop the mechanism, climaxing prematurely in a most disappointing first date with de-icing. It was a win. I still had to get out onto the cable and masquerade as a de-icer a bit longer, play acting the actions I would be required to do later, like a sad puppet. I swung the wooden bat at the ice-less cable, my weathered boots tittering precariously over each side. I wondered how the hell I was going to cope in bad weather, when I could barely tighten my jellyfish limbs enough to remain upright, under the best conditions this simulation could offer.
The whispery clouds rested dubiously on the horizon, the whole reason for my being up here, was obscured by their uncertainty. As I looked around from the top of the tower, each rock, crag and divot, at this point still uncovered by the snow, sunk like a pubescent nutsack, as my own retracted into my body. The terrain looked overly defined, as if painted, and seeming to have its depth drawn further into the earth and away from my celestial zone. I wrapped up my charade, with more whimper than pop, descending the ladder gratefully, back to terra firma. I had to accept the possibility – maybe I just wasn’t cut out for this.
I mulled it over on the journey back to the staff accommodation, where I was living with 55 other employees, all piled in on top of each other – shared common room, living room, toilets and showers, even many of the bedrooms were split between two strangers going in. I was lucky, I came with my partner, so we ended up in a private room. In fact, we really lucked out early on when I managed to haggle our way into the largest room, and only one with a en-suite bathroom, usually reserved for the house caretaker and cook, after he had moved out into private accommodation. One night, he came and placed himself on the sofa beside me.
“How is the new room?”
“Good” I replied.
“Funny smell in the bathroom thought, right?”
“Yeah” (there was).
“Just can’t get the smell of death out.”
“Oh, don’t you know?” A wicked smile cracked free at the corners of his lips.
“The last caretaker died in that room. That’s why the position was open this year.”
“Oh wow, that’s dark.”
“Yeah, they didn’t find his body for two days. He had started to decompose when they did.”
My eyes widened in revolt.
“Are you serious..?”
“Why would I joke about this?” His face let out no emotion. He readjusted his glasses with one finger.
“Ask Sue (the property manager).” He continued.
I believed him.
“Did they change the mattress?” I inquired, grimacing.
“Does the staff accommodation seem like the place they replace mattresses?”
I didn’t answer.
I turned back to what I was doing previously, but my mind stayed on the conversation. He stood up and slipped away in silence.
I spent three days fretting over it. People have died everywhere, I told myself. Let it go. I couldn’t budge the uneasy feeling I got whenever I walked into my room, let alone tried to find a comfortable position in bed.
On the forth day, he told me he was joking…
Man, it was a learning curve. I had fun – sure did – it was a good experience and I’m glad for it. I met some of the coolest, most warm (I like that juxtaposition), and interesting people from all around the globe. I made some real connections. It was awesome. Would I do it again? Hell no! Not if there was a alternative. I had never lived in shared accommodation before, let alone with 55 other people. I had gone from living in a flat with my partner in the UK, to a van with my partner in NZ, to a sardine tin of other humans at Ruapehu – it was an acquired taste, and may not improve with age – but that’s obviously subjective. There’s many anecdotes to be told here, and lessons learned, I’m sure – perhaps another time.
The bus was pulling in through the darkness, headlights reflecting off the glassy frozen tarmac. We all piled in.
I was rolling with it.
A typical de-icing day would start early! 6/6.30am into the staff room for morning briefing and gear up. Everything needed to be checked before heading out – harness’, clips, carabineers and lanyards – tugs and nods passed from item to item. You would always do a buddy check too, for double surety.
The team would trail out into the darkness, which sat heavily on the snow, bundling their gear and tired bodies onto the back of the snowcat – a snow groomer – securing their snowboard by their bindings around the metal railings, which we stood, exposed, inside. Most were fit for work, some would be hungover, dreaming already of that first pie once (and if) the restaurant opens. The machine purred as we rode off into the abyss. Often the scenery would be startling, lit by the eery headlight of the snowcat – jaunty icicles hung from rocks and overhangs like colonies of glacial bats. We trundled along like a rag tag band of warriors, heading into battle on the back of a fearless red tank. The air was thick with choking diesel fumes, which blew into our faces. Sometimes, people would hold their gloves over the exhaust to warm their hands. They’d be surprised as they burned and shrivelled dry like a dehydrated prune. It would melt holes in jackets of those pressed against it. Despite, people would still choose to chew the toxic excretion, and punish their gear, as a better alternative to the biting cold.
Operations would be carried out in ‘riding gear’, with travel between lift towers to be made on snowboard – ski boots were not appropriate footwear to climb the towers, though some did anyway. Exceptions were to be made on days in which the most severe weather made riding too dangerous, in which the line would be walked. Beyond that circumstance, we would be dropped at the top of the lift tower, strap into our snowboards, and ride to our allocated tower. There, we would fasten our boards to the ladder on the tower, climb it and remove the ice, then ride to the next free tower and pick it up, radioing in our location. A series of other safety measures were in place, implemented through radio communication, to make sure the lift was locked-out at the drive station, and safe to be worked on.
This first few days I got my bearings, were “glory days”. Small storms followed by sunny days. These were celebrated moments. The towers would heat up under the layer of ice and one big hit would often undermine the whole formation, sending it to earth in a hail storm of shattered ice.
I was cutting my teeth on the grindstone. The view over the pinnacle ridge was breathtaking.
The best thing about early mornings, was undoubtably watching the sunrise, a resplendent kaleidoscope transforming the horizon. The best view overlooked Mt Ngauruhoe, which is the volcano that modelled for Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings, whilst it reigns over its kingdom, beneath the lavish display, palatially.
The first and most beneficial thing I learnt was to trust my equipment. I practiced lowering myself into precarious positions and hanging in my harness. Learning to trust in my gear was a massive mental victory, which began to help me to override the fear of heights. The snow, which now covered all the rocks, also aided me, in blurring my gauge of depth. When the floor was solid white, it created a false sense of security, like hovering over a giant pillow.
The best time to de-ice, was always on the glory days, baked in sunlight. Believe it or not, warm-ish yet stormy days actually sucked way more than freezing cold ones. At least with the re-freeze, the layer of ice would armour you in a – very broadly speaking – insulated layer, which wouldn’t turn your gear into a sodden mess until you breached the warm, welcoming air of the staff room. The worse ordeals were the warm-er storms, hovering just above freezing. Whilst it drenched you to the skin in frigid rain, it would chill you to the bones with unrelenting winds. The winds could get well over 100km an hour, permeating even the most robustly dressed de-icer.
I would loathe these days. My hands became numb and refused to respond to the neurons firing through my brain, telling it to move my muscles. Grasping at the unforgiving cold of the steel with my newly autonomous mitts, furthered the pain, as the gusts threw me around like a weightless marionette. My snowboard boots connected to the ice encrusted tower like magnets on wood. When you were at the top of a lift tower, hanging off your harness, you are alone. Wet, cold and fed up – that’s a miserable combination. These were the toughest moments. I’d battle invisible enemies, as my head told me to climb down and save myself in the warmth of staff room. SAVE YOURSELF, YOU FOOL! Why was I punishing myself?
When I did finally squelch into the haven of the staff room, the first stop was the drying cupboard (a small, enclosed, heated room with racks and rails) to hang my jacket and gloves, and enjoy a short moment of respite. We never had long to recover, before break was over and we were suiting back up. The ironic thing – the break was never long enough to dry our gear, only melt the ice, which puddled on the floor on the room. Pulling on my warm, wet jacket, felt gross, but it wasn’t as bad as the cold, attaching itself to the saturated conductor, as soon as we reentered the the unsympathetic air.
Admittedly, it was embarrassingly late in the season that I picked up my top tip: bring spare socks.
A memorable event, where the line was walked, happened in the thick of a fearsome storm. The Far West T-Bar was in the periphery of the resort. As the name implies, it was as far out as you can get – it was the Wild West.
The cable was de-railed and buried deep in the snow, weighted down by immense ice build up. It was clear, through the morning briefing, that this was no ordinary day. The storm was tearing through the seemingly impenetrable bleached backdrop. “It’s Siberia out there”, the supervisor gulped. The snowcat driver, despite being incredible well familiarised the landscape, ordinarily reading the terrain using geographical markers, got lost two times in the fog, and we suffered on the back of the groomer, huddled together for warmth, as a consequence. I questioned why we would even be out here in these conditions – it seemed like a kamikaze mission. The battleground was stark and hostile. I felt like we had been well and truly fucked. Was nobody thinking about our safety or our health? It sure didn’t feel like it. Who was the dumb bastard being sent into the line of fire without anything more than a silent protest?
“If you’re gonna be dumb, you better be tough”.
Our gear was laminated by the freeze before we arrived at the lift. We looked like a lost expedition, whose frozen corpses had been preserved in the permafrost.
Arriving, grateful to depart the claustrophobic confines of the snowcat, and get moving as soon as possibly to warm up. Parameters set, we walked the line. The cable was like the torqued string to a bow. We had to stay either side of it, never stepping over it, where it lay, buried beneath the surface. Everything was a bit different, everything was being done incrementally. We walked cautiously and stopped by our tower. We were to only de-ice one tower at a time, working down the line, with the other de-icers standing clear. Once the tower above us was cleared, we would be radioed for the next man up to step into action. This was to minimise risk, with fewer people in the cross fire, if the vibrations from the de-icers swings was to prompt the release of the loaded cable and send it up like a inverted guillotine. I wasn’t long finished with my tower, safely on the ground when the cable raptured. Pieces of ice rained down like arctic cannonballs. A fridge sized jacket of ice, blown apart into car tire sized projectiles, sprayed everywhere like a shotgun shell. Smaller, fist sized shrapnel hit my shoulder and back as I curled into the brace position.
“Call yourself in safe!” a panicked voiced stabbed through the radio.
“I’m hit.” crackled over multiple transmissions coming in at once.
“I’m hit! My arm!…” a second time, clearer.
It was very dramatic. I almost expected severed limbs and arteries pumping warm crimson gore all over the sullied snow.
Whilst the damage was accessed we called ourselves in from the top. Everyone else was ok. The force of the cable releasing had ironically knocked off a lot of the ice from the towers. A job well done?
We regrouped, ready to tidy up the loose ends, as the injured de-icer was evacuated on the back of a snowmobile. There was talk of whether a helicopter was going to have to be called in from Taupō, which never came to fruition. He was ok – he escaped with minor injuries and his arm wasn’t even broken, gratefully. After an initial genuine concern, the jokes began to pour on in heaps. A lot of fuss for nothing! And the rest, to which you’ll have to use your imagination. It’s all banter. You know that phrase? Usually when people say “it’s just banter” – it is – sometimes it’s not, it’s a shade darker. There’s a fine line.
Social politics can be difficult. I don’t know what I expected working at a ski resort would be like. Lots of young people with a diverse range of personalities. Suddenly having to deal with a abnormally large amount of coworkers was educational.
Working the regular day to day as a Lift Operator was pretty straight forward in itself – set up, shovel snow, run the lift for public, shovel more snow, smile a lot. I enjoyed creating an experience for people. Everyone comes to ski or snowboard and have fun! Making a garden flourish beautifully is easy if the flowers are already there, you just need to water it.
There were around 50 lift operators in the department, nearly all under the age of 30 and the grand majority under the age of 25. It doesn’t take a lot to create a commotion.
In moments, I felt like I had gone back in time, to school days, with frivolous gossip dripping from loose lips, and watching the cliques group together, it was a scene straight out of the movie Mean Girls.
The de-icers were, in some respects, another breed entirely. Although not adverse to their own tones of gossip – It was a mans world. That said, I should note, there was one female de-icer, who was as impressive as any person I’ve ever met – a good ol’ fashioned, tough as muck farm girl, who would throw picnic style tables on her back and carry them like I could lift a cold pint to my lips – with ease. But, if you were a de-icer, apparently, you had to live up to a action hero stereotype, brave, dumb and emotionless – and that didn’t always sit well with me. We’re human. We’re sensitive. But, when you’re surrounded by all males, where the role doesn’t just ask you to be tough, it demands it, it begins to harbour a culture of, dare I say it – toxic masculinity. It shunned compassion and promoted bravado. I would have thought, due to the nature of the work, it would have harboured kinship and camaraderie, to some, without a doubt, it did, but, there was a ruthlessness to it too. If someone messed up, it was dog eat dog. I observed that mentality with disappointment. There were those who would step on other people, or put them down to look good. I know that exists everywhere. Im a little older, little wiser now – I deal with things better. Still plenty to learn. But, even then, I didn’t like that. I like to see the true personality of a person, I believe, beneath the surface, we’re all filled with inadequacies and insecurities. That’s the beautiful side of a person. When the boys snowboarded together, it was called riding as a wolfpack. Sometimes, I felt like a dog blending in among wolves.
As the season progressed, I started to feel more and more confident – and comfortable – whilst I manoeuvred my way around the tower like a macaque through the trees.
It was a strange sensation. Something which once struck fear throughout my being, was now so tackled with so my dexterity and vigour. I felt at ease looking over the highest towers to the ground below. I could hang upside down if I wanted to, from any height in my harness, to get those hard to reach places. No sheer dread, just… enthusiasm. I would choose the highest tower I could, for that extra rush – it would still give me a tickle in the goolies, but I wasn’t scared anymore – I started to seek it. It was exciting – thrilling – addictive!
Somewhere inside me, I had decided I needed this. I needed a challenge – an obstacle to overcome. I had battled, and defeated, the fear of heights I had been harbouring it since a small boy. Something about it felt coming of age.
As high as the hurdles were, I had made it over the bar. As the season drew to an end, and the final swings fell through the air, it wasn’t relief which filled me, It was melancholy. I was going to miss it.
You can watch the de-icing process in the link below. This video is not my property – it was shown as an introduction to de-icing by the department manager at Whakapapa. The video was filmed at Whakapapa, Mt Ruapehu.
Look out for next In times of travel, where I’ll be stepping back into Ruapehu once more, with a guide to the Crater Lake at its summit.
What is life without community? I would love to connect with other nicecissists out there. Seeing as you’ve got this far, that’s probably you! Reach out, drop me a message and let me know what you think in the comments, and of course, give me a follow for more – nice!