Tom Kelly: Grooming a prodigal run at Deer Valley
Darkness had settled over Deer Valley Resort as we crested the rise on Bald Eagle Mountain and peered down into the valley below. The lights of Snow Park Lodge gave us a reference as we extended our gaze towards the glow of Old Town in the distance. There is nothing more peaceful at the end of a ski day than to be sitting atop a mountain, snowflakes falling, and not a care in the world.
This was one of those ‘man dreams’ – to be riding in a big piece of machinery, conquering the steeps and sculpting the snow. We were seated in a Prinoth Bison, nearly 10 tons of machinery with over 400 horsepower of Caterpillar energy pushing the treads. Deer Valley groomer Laura Sexton was in command, her left hand deftly managing the track control levers, her right fingers flicking buttons on a joystick like an experienced gamer, expertly controlling the hydraulics.
Like me, Sexton is a native midwesterner who grew up on the slopes of Ski Sundown in Dubuque, Iowa and at Chestnut Mountain in nearby Galena, Illinois. A Madison, Wisconsin native myself, I spent plenty of time at Sundown in the ‘70s. She extended her passion for skiing into jobs in the rental shop and on the mountain, before heading west to work at Deer Valley, first as a liftie but quickly moving into grooming.
Along the way, Sexton served her country with 37 years in Naval Reserve as a corpsman. Ever at love behind the wheel, she and husband Dusty are equally at home with their Jeeps and off-road rugs on Moab’s Poison Spider Mesa.
With nearly 30 years behind the tiller at Deer Valley, she’s one of the resort’s veterans on a crew with well over 100 years of experience on any given shift. And she still loves it.
Earlier in the afternoon, I joined Laura for a ski tour of the mountain as she prepared for the evening. She’s lead groomer on the early shift, managing eight drivers who will be on the snow until midnight when the swing shift arrives to groom until dawn.
Starting from the maintenance yard below the Judge Lift near Silver Lake, we made our way towards Homestake to head up and check on Little Stick and Big Stick. She carved a nice line on her tele skis, getting the feel of the snow under her feet, gauging the skier pressure on the surface that day and carefully watching the snow surface on the edges of the run.
We took on the broad shoulders of Big Stick, traversing edge to edge to feel the snow, stopping midway to look at progress on the World Cup moguls run. A winch cat would soon be carving row after row of raw bumps, with the moguls to be carved by skiers.
Coming off Carpenter, we headed down to Wasatch. She let her skis glide across the flat, judging very precisely if the pitch carried downhill or if it needed some snowcat love. At the bottom of Wasatch, she peered down into the snow, detecting a very minute edge that needed cleanup that night.
This was a labor of love!
Back in the shop, her crew for the first shift sat in the break room. It was a diverse lineup of five men and three women, with ages spanning four decades. Despite the disparity, you could tell in an instant that this was a team. Each of them got their assignments and headed out to warm up their cats.
It was twilight as Laura and I pulled out onto the slopes. Darkness soon descended. Having ridden in plenty of cats over the years, this was the height of comfort. Laura sat in the center seat, comfortably navigating the rolling terrain from her captain’s chair.
She kept an eye on her crew, now spread out across the mountain. One driver was working the World Cup aerials hill, his cat’s overhead winch connected to an anchor point above the takeoff for safety. Another had begun to groom Success, laying down a manicured surface with each pass up the mountain. Laura takes as much pride in the work of her team as she does in her own.
Snow grooming is an art form. As we headed uphill, Laura flicked the hydraulics to push the blade into the snow, snapping the wings out to gain maximum width. The snow looped up and circled back to the ground, while the treads compacted it. She set the tillers to aerate the snow behind the cat, with bars carving pristine corduroy into the snow.
Down in town, skiers hurrying to and from dinner could see the headlights of the cats scattered across the resort, tiny specs in the night. Inside the cabs, the grooming team savored the peacefulness of the evening as they spun their treads on a dime to head back up for another grooming pass.
As skiers, we probably take it for granted as we head up an early morning lift for first tracks on neatly aligned rows of virgin corduroy. By dawn the last of the grooming team is headed home. A few might grab their skis to test it themselves.
As the team congregates for its dinner break at Silver Lake, you get a sense of the commonality they share across their generations. You can see the pride in their eyes and feel the joy in their hearts as they track the miles in the sky while all of us lie sleeping with visions of fresh tracks in our dreams.
Wisconsin native Tom Kelly landed in Park City in 1988 (still working on becoming an official local). A recently inducted member of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, he is most known for his role as lead spokesperson for Olympic skiing and snowboarding for over 30 years until his retirement in 2018. This will be his 50th season on skis, typically logging 60 days in recent years.
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Columnist Tom Clyde writes that other states forcing people who’ve been in Utah to quarantine could complicate ski season: “Come and enjoy a long holiday weekend in Utah, and, as an added bonus, you get to take an additional two weeks off work.”