Groomers mold resorts into winter playgrounds
After skiers and snowboarders make their exodus from the mountain every day, a legion of snow cats invade the hills and groom the slopes.
"They are the unsung heroes. They are working when everyone is sleeping and they are making the mountain fun for most of the skiers," said Chuck English, Director of Mountain Operations for Deer Valley Resort.
Without groomers, the ski resorts would be "full of moguls or powder or chopped up powder," English said.
Grooming enables many of the skiers to enjoy a day on a mountain rather than battle tough conditions.
"It enables a typical destination skier or intermediate skier to come out and feel good about skiing," English said. "It builds their ego. If we didn’t groom it would be a challenge for the majority of skiers to visit."
English compared it to a casual golfer who tees off on a championship golf course.
"Most wouldn’t feel good about it," he said. "If you play a golf course that’s designed to be a tournament course, you are so far from par that it’s frustrating. People want to go out and have fun. A lot of people come out here and ski only two times a year."
Brian Suhadolc, the slope maintenance manager for Park City Mountain Resort, also recognizes the need for grooming.
"Off the top of my head, 60 to 70 percent of the people want to ski groomed trails," Suhadolc said. "Usually when you consider out-of-town visitors, they prefer groomed trails."
That’s why resorts place a high priority on grooming.
"On the mountain, it’s probably the highest (priority)," English said.
"Basically we are out there to try to provide the best possible service we can. We’re trying to get their best money’s worth on the hill. It’s great for everybody," Suhadolc said.
The snow cat operators drive their vehicles all night so there has been an emphasis to create advanced machines. Many of them are equipped with satellite radio and are becoming more comfortable and easier to drive. The snow cats cost about $250,000 each.
"It’s amazing how powerful they are and they’re a lot of fun," English said.
As a result of the money put into each vehicle, accidents rarely happen in the machines.
"They are really safe," English said. "The cats have a low center of gravity, each track is five feet wide and it’d be really hard for a cat to roll over."
Even though they may slide on a steep slope, they gain control quickly, English says.
"The machines are really safe," Suhadolc agreed. "They are operator friendly. They are really, really nice machines."
Suhadolc also says today’s groomers are easy to handle and the lights are bright enough for operators to manipulate the slopes during the most challenging night weather.
"They’ve made it so much more comfortable," English said. "All the controls are right where they need them. There’s literally a joystick to operate the blades."
The better machines don’t eliminate the need for qualified drivers, however.
"They are using all their senses all the time. It’s not like driving a car on the freeway, there’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of talent involved," English said.
Each resort usually has a few winch cats for steep runs. During the off-season, the resorts "plant big anchors with about four yards of concrete and steel," English said. The winch cats hook a cable onto the anchors to help the machines climb the big runs.
"Those are used to groom the steeper runs. With the assistance of the winch cable, the tracks won’t tear up the slope," English said.
If there is any danger involved, it is with this equipment.
"The winch cat is probably the most dangerous machine," Suhadolc said. "There’s always a chance the cable will break, which does happen. When it does, you pretty much just hang on."
In his 16 years of experience, Suhadolc says they probably break two cables a year but he hasn’t seen anyone get hurt.
Most resorts have a few runs that are groomed every day, such as bunny hills, green runs and some of the blue runs. Others though are groomed every other day or not at all, depending on the number of skiers and snowfall.
"There are certain runs that are too steep to groom or, because of access or a tree island, they don’t get groomed," English said. "We skip some runs and certain runs are groomed every night."
Some resorts have maps available to show which runs have been freshly groomed.
Park City Mountain Resort has a personal mountain planner available on-line at http://www.mymountainplanner.com. A skier or snowboarder can log on and compute a tour of the mountain based on if he or she wants to ski groomed or ungroomed runs.
Choosing what runs to groom requires teamwork. The snow operations manager starts off the day early in the morning and listens to reports from the groomers who worked the previous night.
Dave Anderson, has been doing it for 26 years at Deer Valley and coordinates what needs to be groomed every day.
"When he gets into work, he gets on a snowmobile and looks at all the five mountains here, he’s got a route and he’ll look and see how things came out and give feedback to the operators," English said.
"During the day, Dave is not only responsible for the snow cats and grooming but also snowmaking and plowing the parking lots."
Anderson also gets feedback from ski patrol supervisors and input from the race department and lift operators on what a cat needs to pay attention to that evening.
"About 2 p.m. he’ll put a plan together," English said. "If a run needs a major overhaul, he’ll draw it out."
Afterwards, the team will run two shifts. The first shift starts at 4 p.m. and runs until midnight then another one starts at midnight and goes until 9 a.m.
"The cats are able to be on the mountain as much as 17 hours a night when we are not open," English said.
Each one of the shifts has a lead operator. The lead operator usually has the most experience.
"Ours have all been here 15 to 25 years," English said. "Those guys really know the mountain they really understand what our end product needs to be."
Suhadolc, works the mountain in a similar fashion. Each shift runs about seven or eight drivers.
"Everybody works together really well," Suhadolc said. "There’s a lot of teamwork to get to final product done in the morning before the skiers come up. They work really well together to do the best job."
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