“They say ‘shaping,’ not shovelling!” he says in a friendly tone, his breath freezing in the air. “Five meters around each obstacle is all done by hand. Always.” When Thomas Alton talks about his work, i.e. shaping, at the Damüls Snowpark, his eyes light up and it becomes abundantly clear: This is his true passion. Though originally from nearby Feldkirch, he knows every hill in Damüls thanks to his grandparents, who went to Oberdamüls to escape the summer heat. Sometimes there is even snow in summer, but there is much more of it, of course, in winter. That’s why his parents spent their skiing holidays here with him. Skiing holidays? That’s when he was a kid. Today, it’s all about snowboarding, a passion he developed when he saw his first board in his family’s sports shop. Since that time, snowboarding has meant everything to him. Back when he was just 17 years old, he was a freestyler fascinated by the American professionals and their big parks. And here in Vorarlberg? Not so much. That’s why he had to take matters, or rather a shovel, into his own hands. Next stop was a visit to Head of Operations Markus Simma, who is today managing director of the ski region. “Can I build some jumps here?” he asked. Yes, was the answer, and so it all began.
Thomas Alton explains what he and his five-man crew actually do in the Damüls Snowpark. We’ll give you a hint, it has to do with snow shovels, but never say that out loud. Because getting the park into proper ‘shape’ takes so much more!
Alton drafts plans, orders rails and boxes from the metal worker around the corner, and has the snow groomer driver move the snow masses according to his exacting specifications. “It was all pretty imprecise at first,” says the 36-year-old today about his time in Damüls. “The dimensions were wrong. But it was also cool because such equipment wasn’t available anywhere else.” Clumsy initial attempts gradually turned into a professional park. Every year during his semester break Thomas Alton shaped the Snowpark Damüls with his colleagues. In 2003, he started a company called “Parkdesign – Snowpark Management” and shortly afterwards he hired the first employee for shaping. Today, he is the head of a five-man “shape crew.” What, I ask incredulously? The team shovel in and around the snow park all winter? Of course not, they’re shaping! And they start the moment that the first snow falls.
“Hannes begins to gather together snow from the moment the snow groomers start their engines.” Johannes Metzler, aka Hannes, aka the former snowboard professional from Mellau, is a park snow groomer driver and right-hand man of the boss. I’m only in Damüls three times a week,” says Alton regretfully. “But Hannes keeps me informed. He’s been with us for over eight years and knows exactly what matters to me.” The same applies to the other crew members, who wouldn’t be here if they weren’t dedicated. “You can only do this job if you are a snowboarder or freeskier yourself,” explains Alton. “Otherwise you have no idea about the jumps, the radii and the shapes of the obstacles. I also attach great importance to the highest quality. This can only be achieved by those who are passionate about freestyle themselves.”
Besides Hannes Metzler, they also have two young Czech snowboarders: It is Thomas’ fourth season this year, Jan’s sixth. Jan? Everyone here calls him “the Machine,” after all he does the work of two. New to the team is Simon, but he doesn’t have to be afraid of the “machine.” He’s a member of the Damüls Freestyle Team and according to his boss “a daredevil and one of the best freeskiers in the country.” René comes from Allgäu and he’s both a carpenter and snowboarder rolled into one. “The perfect combination,” grins Alton. “As a boarder he has previous knowledge and as a craftsman he is good with tools.” Alton recently became a father and he also runs a sports shop in Feldkirch. Feldkirch? This is Damüls we’re talking about. He’s here as often as possible and works, ehem, s-h-a-p-e-s, as often as he can. “The only way to be a good boss is to get into the trenches (in this case snow). Otherwise, the others won’t take you seriously.” Where will all this hard work take them? “Of course we have ideas for the future. But I don’t want to give away too much yet!” The freestyle scene won’t care for that much. For those who can stand the wait, there is always the joy of anticipation, preferably at the Damüls Snowpark.
Author: Bartholomäus Natter
Edition: Winter Travel Magazine 2018-19