The Salt of Summit County: The Sawyers of Deer Valley
Dave Smith doesn’t know what it’s like to work in an office.
Since the early 1980s, he’s logged his hours on the mountain slopes for Deer Valley Resort. In the summer he’s a sawyer by day, in the winter he’s a slope groomer at night.
"This is great, this is sport," he said of his career.
Like everyone else on his crew, Smith is an avid skier.
"I bought a season pass to Deer Valley and never left," he explained. "I started here in 1980 doing trail construction; it was something I fell into."
Every spring the same group of guys signs up to join him cutting dead trees, and every fall they switch to their winter jobs teaching ski lessons, working the chair lifts or driving a Snow Cat.
Mention Deer Valley’s rating as North America’s top resort by the readers of SKI magazine, and watch the sawyers blush with pride.
The rating reflects the experience of skiers, and while the sawyers do their thing in the summer, how well they clear the runs of logs, "whippers" and "pungies" makes a difference once the snow falls.
The four sawyers, Dave Smith, Gary "Wheatey" Allen, Rob Shelton and Bevan Hawkins do anything called for dealing with trees, from cutting up dead ones for firewood in lodges, to new slope construction and glading, to clearing areas for lift construction or new buildings.
Most of what they do, however, is finding saplings and dead trees that make a nuisance for back-country skiers.
"Whippers" are new growth that whip at a skier as they speed past. "Pungies" are broken branches sticking up out of the snow that can trip or skewer a skier.
The crew roams the mountains with chainsaws spinning at 13,000 rpm experiencing nature like the prospectors of old.
"In the woods all the time we constantly see wildlife: hawks, deer, elk, turkey vultures, coyotes," Smith said.
They also see the remains of prospectors like bottles and wires. Unfortunately, their saws find old nails in trees.
Every once and a while they’ll run across the work of Snowshoe Tommy Thompson, one of the last prospectors, who carved graffiti into hundreds of trees with a pocket knife. The sawyers occasionally stumble upon a funny saying or design or poetry in a living tree.
"We like what we’re doing hanging out in the woods all the time," Smith said. "We got a pretty good thing going. It’s a lot of hard work, but we take it in stride."
The mountains aren’t always hospitable to them, however.
Allen, who everyone calls "Wheatey," disturbed four underground hornet nests last year.
"They literally come out of a hole. My whole hand puffed up. I could watch it grow by the minute like elephantitis," Allen said.
Clearing areas of dead wood is no easy task. Leaning trees can fall in unpredictable ways, especially if the branches are tangled. That’s assuming it’s cut correctly. Smith’s crew has an admirable safety record, but an inexperienced worker can go up the slope instead of staying level and send a 50-pound log rolling down at 30 mph, Shelton explained.
"Things happen real fast when they happen," Smith said.
Then there’s the "widow makers."
Tops of trees sometimes come apart from the trunk and hang up in the canopy. If the support is felled, the spiky top can fall unawares and unpredicted, straight down on the cutter. The sawyers wear helmets, but less than a direct hit will still inflict severe damage.
"It’s 10 lbs. falling from 50 feet," Allen explained.
The crew works in all kinds of weather, which is notoriously unpredictable at high elevations. Short of a lightening storm, their work never stops. In summer, everyone tries to drink about a gallon of water as they work. If the spot needing attention requires hiking in, crew members must carry that water on their backs, along with the saw, supplies and food for two or three miles.
Climbing around on mountain slopes with heavy chainsaws is dangerous work. One can never be too sure of their footing tramping off trails. When the crew is on 20 or 40 degree slopes, the risk of slipping is serious. In those conditions, the sawyers crawl around on hands and knees. Tethering themselves to something secure wouldn’t work because the saw would inevitably catch the rope, Shelton said.
To protect themselves from accidentally cutting legs off, they wear nylon chaps inserted with Kevlar designed to stop the chain if the two connect. During his many years, Shelton said he had the unfortunate experience of testing the chaps.
The difficulties don’t stop when they get home. On a typical day, their arms become coated with pitch from the tree sap. After years of this work, Allen finds the best removal is to smear his arms with mayonnaise in a paper towel, and then scrub off the pitch with a dish scrubber in the shower.
With all these difficulties, the sawyers love their work.
"People come to Deer Valley for the trees," Shelton said with pride.
He also joked that they’ve got great job security since the trees, brush and saplings never stop growing.
"I like cutting wood, I like the smell of lumber," Shelton said.
Their tool shop around from the Silver Lodge is pungent with the smell of pine from their saw blades and supplies hanging on the walls.
But the biggest perk of all for these ski bums masquerading as a work crew is their knowledge of the mountains’ best back-country spots.
"If you can’t keep up, see ya later," Hawkins said with a smile.
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