You Don’t Have to be Mad to Work Here… The ‘Gattisti’ of La Thuile, Italy

My life is quite literally suspended from a cable no thicker than my finger. What feels like it could well at any second become my ten tonne red metal coffin, is grappled to a hook, itself seemingly no more impressive than one to which one might tie a horse. I just watched Lauro scramble up into his seat to my left and turn the ignition. We begin to roll, and the cable gradually tightens and stretches off into the night as we inch our way towards total darkness. It feels like we are in a battle with gravity, in which there can be only one winner.

Life Suspended...

Life Suspended…

Lauro Martinet, 47 is what is known as a ‘gattista’, a piste basher driver in the resort of La Thuile, in Italy’s Valle d’Aosta. In these parts they refer to these producers of beautifully groomed corduroy as ‘gatti’, or cats.

After idolising his older cousin, himself a driver and now the shift leader, Lauro also learned the art of ‘bashing’ and has spent the last three decades perfecting it. He now, almost exclusively, looks after La Thuile’s famous piste number 3 ‘The Franco Berthod’, the steepest and most challenging to work, which has hosted European Cup stages and about which rumours of a stage of the 2016 World Cup circulate.

I have exceptional permission to accompany him and his nine fellow ‘gattisiti’ assigned to the Sunday morning 3 to 11 a.m shift. As a lifelong skier, I have often gazed up onto the pistes at night wondering in amazement at the distant, ghostly lights, slowly inching their way around the pistes, like so many giant caterpillars.

Vito, 'Gattista' Preparing His Machine...

Vito, ‘Gattista’ Preparing His Machine…

It’s an alien world. This is my chance to unravel its secrets. My meeting point is under the ski lifts at 2.50 a.m. As I pass the local nightclub, the night is well underway, other than that the resort is empty. I am early, and alone in the snow.

Then slowly, from out of the dark, they arrive. Big men, most of them bearded, all smokers. The ‘gattisti’ of La Thuile. In their heavy, warm uniforms they look like red and black bears, awoken from hibernation, as they one by one enter the huge garage that contains what most of them refer to as their second homes. Not sure how to greet them I try ‘buona sera’, good evening. But these are the epitome of the strong silent type. Each wanders off to his particular machine distinguishable to me only by their respective numbers. There is tinkering and then, one by one the deafening drone of engines. In convoy we set off and up.

I assume my allocated seat in the German built Leitwolf ‘gatto’ of Vito Carlotto, aged 47. ‘I talk to her all night’, he tells me, ‘but please don’t think I’m crazy’. For the next two hours, in convoy we bash our way around the lower pistes.

On Top of The World... Crossing Into France at Dawn

On Top of The World… Crossing Into France at Dawn

Vito, seated dead centre of the beast controlling everything by joystick make him reminiscent of a spaceship commander. He explains how you always bash from ‘up mountain’ to ‘down valley’, to squash the hundreds of ice cookies that roll down hill, how whomever happens to be lead basher is in charge of where to go and how the last decides when a piste is complete. How the revs, the ‘basher’, everything is adjusted according to the type of snow. There is no test for this, no license; ‘you either have it or you don’t’, he says.

At just after 5 a.m a call comes in over the still largely silent radios; ‘who wants coffee?’ Soon seven bashers – two are too far away – are parked up at 2000 metres. In the on-slope office, ‘coffee’ in gloriously Italian fashion turns out to be bread, local fontina cheese, salamis and prosciutto. For these men, who work 6 day weeks, sometimes up to 11 hours at a stretch if conditions dictate it, this is lunch, or maybe dinner.

Breakfast On The Job...

Breakfast On The Job…

It’s clear they are not used to ‘guests’ and it is my turn to break ice and make conversation. A decision is made to resume work, and at the same time, that so far I’ve had it a little too easy; ‘go with Lauro to The 3,’ I’m told.

‘To do this job you need passion’, says Lauro as the giant metallic arm, from which our lifeline protrudes, swings round in front of us and we switch to reverse. With our 1000m cable slowly unwinding, our machine shakes and shudders from the effort. ‘We are at maximum pulling capacity’, he mutters as if reminding himself; 4500 kgs. It is not yet dawn, outside the temperature is minus 10 degrees, it is pitch black, we are suspended on a seventy degree slope and in reverse. Along with incredible skill, I wonder whether a touch of madness is also a prerequisite for this job.

There follows ninety minutes of gravity defying reality in which the immense skill of Lauro is evident.

€400.000s Worth of 'Cat'...

€400.000s Worth of ‘Cat’…

We slowly move up and down the piste, picking up snow where the cannons have formed small mountains, and shifting it to cover rocks and streams. The rate of pull, the acceleration of the basher, the angle of the ‘gatto’ itself are constantly adjusted and re-adjusted, all the time with a keen eye on the cable which is keeping us alive. Wrapping this around a tree, a snow cannon or even the unthinkable, a snap, could have serious consequences. This is piste preparation work. There are still two weeks until it’s scheduled opening. ‘We only do so much, then we let it rest’, says Lauro.

The nights work is over. We cross back over the French-Italian border; La Thuile, is linked by pistes to French La Rosiere, and all nine ‘gatti’ convene in a valley above the home stretch. It is just gone 9 a.m, the pistes have opened to the public, now it’s time to let hundreds of skiers enjoy the fruits of the night’s labours. We are escorted down again in convoy, as required by a pisteur.

Lauro, Cleaning His 'Cat'...

Lauro, Cleaning His ‘Cat’…

Back in the depot, each machine is cleaned of snow and refuelled with up to 200 litres of diesel, the consumption of just one night’s work. As well as the skills, the costs involved are incredible. In the office, Gianni the shift leader, proudly shows me a framed article from an Austrian newspaper. It contains three lines about perfectly groomed pistes in La Thuile, someone has highlighted them. ‘Just sometimes people realise what we do’, he says.

Nice Job Boys... Thanks

Nice Job Boys… Thanks

(This article was written as a first of an intended series of 5 highlighting all the behind the scenes work that goes into operating a ski resort. It was intended for publication in the travel (ski and snow) section of a UK paper, but none were interested, however the story of the Gattisti deserves to be told, and thankfully I know the editor of a travel blog ;-))

~ by 2ndcupoftea on January 9, 2014.

2 Responses to “You Don’t Have to be Mad to Work Here… The ‘Gattisti’ of La Thuile, Italy”

  1. Enjoyed this read immensely, T!

  2. Thanks for reading Anna – as always you are very kind. T

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