«Check out our footwear and then have a look at this,» exclaims the guy dressed in orange who accosts me at 7am at the road maintenance depot in Airolo. I glance down at his feet and see sturdy walking boots and gaiters. I don’t really feel I can cast my eyes to my own shoes as I know I’ll be met with a pair of light Vans. Shame is written all over my face. I might have been up since 4am but my brain hasn’t quite caught up. It’s my own fault really and there's no time to complain.
There isn’t much time when you and video producer Manuel Wenk are joining some of the staff from the road maintenance depot up at the Gotthard pass. The street has to be cleared of snow and ice so the pass can be opened as soon as possible. Drivers, bike enthusiasts and restaurant owners on the mountain can hardly wait for the pass to be, well, passable again after its yearly winter closure. Even Werner Gnos, who is in charge of the clearing team, is looking forward to the road being open. But his enthusiasm is fuelled by something else entirely. «I can do without snow for a while.» He has been hard at work with his team to clear the pass since 8 April. Now we’re in the middle of May and his 12-strong team have made it to the top of the road.
On the way up there, we stop at a little break room at the entrance to one of the tunnels. There’s coffee, croissants and snuff tobacco for dessert. We’re only there for about 20 minutes, joking about and having a good chat before we set off for the last section of the climb. When we get there, it soon seems unpleasant. It’s only -5℃ but the real feel is -15℃. The mist is still shrouding the sun and the wind is howling about our ears. «That’s pretty common up here. It rarely gets warm,» explains Werner. Being freezing is apparently just part and parcel of the job.
Unlike Werner, I fail miserably to hide how cold I’m feeling. My teeth start chattering and my legs are shivering. It’s like I’ve been plonked on another planet. Further down in the valley I was happy to wander around in just a T-shirt but up here I feel like I’ve signed up for an Arctic expedition – just without the right equipment. In spite of the cold, I can still appreciate the impressive view. The snow walls that loom up on either side of me average between six and eight metres in height. The highest is an astounding 13.5 metres.
They cleared the street in between layer by layer using three huge snow blowers. So that the men in the machines know which bits had to be cleared, Werner and a colleague mark the way. He uses a GPS device that also calculates measurements and sprays the section to be cleared in pink. But Werner rarely drives the machine himself. «I let those who get a kick out of it go first. Also, I’m the worst driver,» he says and emits a loud laugh.
With all of the marking up of sections and using machinery, there is still a lot of work to be done on the Gotthard pass. «We clear the streets of ice, clean them, put down crash barriers and remove any debris,» explains Werner. But what he likes most about his job has nothing to do with any of those tasks. «I like the team spirit, the peace and quiet and being close to nature.» If you don’t have an affinity for the mountains, you’re unlikely to last long in this job, according to Werner.
But it’s not all peace and tranquillity. Werner has to contend with constant questions about when it’ll all be finished. «People are always calling up to ask for the exact open date.» However, they won’t ever get a definitive answer or a promise from Werner. «It’s me who takes the responsibility if anything happens because we’ve opened the pass too early,» he points out. He’d rather hear constant grumbling than take any risks. «In any case, it’s not us who determine the open date but the weather.»
And that’s been playing crazy games this year. «At the start of March I looked at the snow profile and thought we’d be finished quickly this year. But then came heavy snowfall and that changed everything,» Werner points out. Now the team are further behind than they would normally be. Dealing with that amount of snow takes time and commitment. Aside from the five days when the avalanche risk was too high, Werner has been in this white landscape from dawn till dusk. «When you go back into the valley after being up here all day, the colours seem more intense. Especially the green grass. There’s something about it that I find striking every evening.»
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