What’s the best thing for getting snow off the windscreen of a snow plough? The wipers? No. A bank card. Du Yue swings out of the cab and dangles in front of me rasping away with the tiny scraper.
But it hasn’t actually snowed. It’s the coldest day of the winter so far, a cool minus six degrees. It’s 10pm and the evening ski session is just finishing at Wanlong Bayi ski resort, out in Beijing’s Western Mountains. It has to be below minus one degrees to make snow, so some nights the team has to wait late into the night. This day the temperature dropped so quickly they called me in earlier.
The reason we’ve got snow on our windscreen is because Du Yue had just taken us for a slow spin around the snow machines firing out fake snow so that we could line up with one, wind down the window and take a look inside. Four of the cannons are spaced out up a beginners’ piste that is being prepared for opening.
My entire knowledge of skiing comes from three hours at Huaibei. When arranging this job I had imagined myself spraying fake snow, Ghostbusters style, from a hose, so I was a little disappointed as well as impressed by the fancy imported cannon. The machines are effectively very powerful fans. Around the rim is a ring of nozzles that create a water droplet mist which the cannon blasts skyward. The machines illuminate their snowfall, creating an industrially beautiful scene up the hillside.
Once in place they’re connected to a water supply and electricity and left until all the water in the resort’s reservoir is used up. It’s refilled during the day.
We drive up to one that had been in use the night before and grab hold of it with the plough, lifting it like a digger would. Once out of the way we drive up and down the heap it had created.
The ten-tonne machine we’re in, nicknamed 'piste-bashers', has a plough at the front that breaks up big pieces of snow or pushes it where you want to spread it. Then everything gets crushed under the caterpillar tracks, before the long roller at the rear with spikes sticking out smoothes it out and gives it a grooved, corduroy trouser finish. Why have they done it like that? Apparently that’s what all pistes look like all round the world first thing in the morning.
This is Du’s third shift of the day. He gets up around 6.30am to work 7-9am, then 4-6pm when the runs close for a bit of a repair between day and night skiing. We’re now on the 10pm-2am shift. 'It’s worse once more pistes are open as you have to get up earlier to do them before opening,' Du tells me as he drives us over to the piste where night skiing has just finished.
Despite my appealing that I’ve learnt how to drive a combine harvester and it all seems very similar, I’m firmly in the passenger seat as we start our steep ascent of the slope, smoothing the snow as we go. 'Visibility is really bad in these things,' says Du.
The shift manager buzzes through over the walkie talkie. There are still skiers on the slope and we have to stop. Sure enough, in the darkness up ahead are a handful of stragglers. A skimobile is scrambled from the base and whizzes past us to herd them back down. A man gets as far as us and falls over. Eventually Du climbs down from the cab to help him get his skis back on.
Then we’re off again up a gradient I had no idea a machine like this could get up. We veer round our own hairpin bend where the piste forms a curve up the mountain. We approach the brow of the steep drop back down. Far below are the lights of the base and ski lift station. Another piste basher is making its way up towards us. 'Holding on tight?' asks Du.