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Snow Clearers at Timmelsjoch

4 Men, 3 Machines & One tricky Pass Road

Every year in the middle of April, Robert Pixner and his strong team move out towards the Austrian stretch of the Timmelsjoch High Alpine Pass Road. Clearing away the snow masses is the order of the day! In early May I paid them a visit at almost 2400 meters above sea level to learn more about the daily work of snow clearers at Timmelsjoch Pass.

The right “Timmel” Weather

Robert gives me a warm welcome: “This is the perfect Timmel weather – just like we have expected it. Completely normal.” Since 2001, Robert has been the head of the road maintenance team at Timmelsjoch, working together with Thomas, Rudi and another Robert. Originally he comes from South Tyrol / Passeiertal but the power of love guided him to Ötztal.

This year the snow clearing team started on 18 April. Everyone has a clear job to do: Robert Pixner, Thomas and Rudi are the drivers of varied snow-clearing machines while Robert number two leads the way on snowshoes for orienteering reasons – especially in bad or foggy weather (just like today).

Easier said than done. The one and only guidance showing the approximate course of the road are the snow poles installed on the downhill side in autumn. They are between 4 and 8 meters high. It happens that they are not there anymore after the long winter months, maybe taken away by an avalanche.

The Timmelsjoch snow clearing team

The Timmelsjoch snow clearing team

The tracked snow blower (1974 model!) makes its way through the snow

The tracked snow blower (1974 model!) makes its way through the snow

Old but reliable!

The snow must be cleared on a total length of 8 kilometers and a width of 6 or 7 meters. When I was there, the last 1.5 kilometers were still missing. 3 vehicles or heavy machines are used, the huge tracked snow blower makes a start.

The chain-driven blower (similar to snow-grooming machines) ensures an average speed even in high snow. It works in several layers, digging deeper and deeper each time until reaching the asphalt. The snow walls on both side are up to 10 meters high – in some spots even 15 meters!

Supported by two more snow clearing machines, the huge white masses are shrinking permanently. One of the vehicles is a truly unique item – a rebuilt Unimog, model 1974: in addition to the normal Unimog engine there is a second engine which drives a big drum attached to its front. Even after 40 years the Unimog is indispensable to the snow clearing team – just like the tracked snow blower that has more or less the same age!

The third snow blower is much newer: a 14-ton wheeled loader with 400 HP. This machine is as well a made-to-measure device equipped with a special suction system which can also be used as a road sweeper in summer by mounting a broom instead of a snow blower. The teamwork of all three snow clearing machines is superb so that – in case of sunny weather – the last thin snow layer on the asphalt melts away very quickly.

Weather gives the rhythm

Which are the biggest challenges and risks for the experienced snow clearing team at Timmelsjoch Pass? First, the switch-backing road and the turns because the vehicles are quite heavy and difficult to steer. Second, the course of the road especially if the snow poles disappeared.

According to Robert, the weather conditions at Timmelsjoch are unpredictable. The same story every year. Heavy snowfalls of up to 1.10 meters at Timmelsjoch in late April make the snow clearing work much more complicated. Parts of the road must be cleared a second or even a third time. A true Sisyphean task!

Robert remembers a very exhausting year when more than 2 meters of fresh snow fell in the course of one month. He and his team had started clearing the road at Toll Station no less than five times. What’s more, there was a high risk of avalanches due to rainy days afterwards. The Timmelsjoch Pass area is highly exposed to storms, fog and snow throughout the seasons. Robert explains dryly: “It’s all about the weather.”

Benedikt Steiner

Author: Benedikt Steiner

When it comes to activity and motion, Benni pricks up his ears! He is a passionate snowboarder, mountain biker, climber & hiker and he knows no better playground for outdoor sports than the Ötztal.

He is not the type to sit still - therefore Benni can be often found on the valley's most exciting bike trails and pristine powder snow slopes.