On December 22, 2021

Celebrating the unsung heroes of the slopes: groomers

By Karen D. Lorentz

‘Tis the season of making snow and the weird weather start to winter 2021-22 with its plentiful ups-and-downs has made the importance of making snow abundantly clear.

Perhaps less obvious though is the significance of what is done, or not done, with that snow.

A complaint from a little boy to his father while attempting to ski Easy Rider last year illustrates what grooming means to many skiers.

By Bonnie MacPherson

“This isn’t a green trail, it’s a black diamond,” he protested.

Indeed, Easy Rider is a green, but on this particular early season day it hadn’t been groomed and was full of moguls. I, too, was struggling. (I never found it ungroomed the rest of the season and enjoyed cruising it midweek for laps off the Sunburst Six after my legs had wearied from steep favorites Blind Faith and Stump Jumper.)

For many of us a groomed trail is just as important as its snow coverage. In fact, Okemo’s snowmaking and grooming prowess have garnered rave reviews for several decades now and contributed to the area’s reputation, popularity and growth.

Machine and implement innovations

There have been major changes since the Tucker Sno-Cats arrived in the 1950s. The machines are easier to drive, more stable, bigger, do more and are more powerful now. In part that’s due to mechanical drive shafts giving way to hydrostatic drives that use hydraulics.

The implements have changed as well with hydraulics making it possible to operate front blades and rear power tillers by pushing a button. (The tiller is a hydraulically driven attachment that has two rotors with innumerable 5-inch steel teeth arranged in spiral configurations. It can dig up hard packed surfaces to a depth of 3 to 4 inches, leaving a very “edge-able” surface.)

Asked about the grooming changes he’s seen over the years, Okemo’s Senior Director of Mountain Operations Eb Kinney said that the biggest change is “the power tiller. Before that grooming was done by rollers. Sometimes a roller, which looked like a galvanized culvert, was used for packing fresh snow. The famous Powder-Maker roller was a corrugated drum, and similar to a cheese grater would shave the surface and create a softer snow surface. Even the power tiller itself has changed substantially over the years. The first versions were rigid with no flex, but they improved and now the current version flexes in the middle and follows the contour of the land to create the corduroy finish that everyone loves to see and ski on.”

Kinney noted that several other innovations proved helpful as well. “The winch cat provides the ability to push large amounts of snow up some of the steeper terrain. Every time a skier or rider carves a turn, they push a little snow down the hill and to the sides. By conserving snow, the winch cat saves on snowmaking costs.

“The push-blades have improved from an old school U-shaped blade to the all-angle blades that we use today. They give us the ability to put the snow exactly where we want it.

“The Prinoth snow cats have developed by leaps and bounds. They are much more fuel-efficient. The Tier 4 Caterpillar diesel engines are much more environmentally friendly, and this year’s new cat is a stage 5, which is an even cleaner burning engine. In addition, the wider tracks on the grooming machine make it easier for the cat to climb uphill and improved ergonomics are much more user-friendly for the operator,” Kinney noted.

In the groomer seat

Imagine being belted into a hi-tech molded seat, stereo on for company (maybe), heater blowing full force to keep your windshield from freezing. You’re in the cab of a $350,000 grooming machine and your mission is to groom snow into the wee hours of the night or early morn.

You enjoy your solitary life in the dark of night and only occasionally use your two-way radio — mostly you work in the peaceful silence of the night. If you see a fellow groomer heading up where you’ve already been, you signal them by rotating your top light to turn around and groom below. Occasionally, you have to connect with the snowmakers, blade them a path down the hill so they can get to the hydrants and guns without being buried in the snow they just made.

After four hours you take a break to refuel machine and body. You trade war stories with your grooming buddies and head back out into the night to finish rounds, if you’re lucky. On the other hand, you might have a spate of freezing rain or six inches of snow that messed up the work you did four hours ago or even a few minutes before, necessitating that you go back over it. Or maybe the snowmakers made more snow on your trails so it might end up being a 12-hour shift.

It takes a real mountain person to love a job like this — someone like John Boudro who has a great fondness for the mountain and the job. Grooming is a snow-cat operator’s kind of work. Quiet, peaceful, creative. You’re your own boss and part artist as you maneuver the implements.

The challenges include watching for objects on the trail, depressions, stumps and ledge rock. If you hit something, you can get a good jolt from the impact and see stars. In the old days you’d slide around a lot on the hill, but the modern tracks have ice caulks, so that’s rare now providing you’re paying attention. These high-tech grooming vehicles are reliable. It’s not like the 1970s when your machine broke down all over the mountain and you’d have to walk for help. Regularly at that! They are well maintained by mechanics who go over them thoroughly and wash them to remove the ice and snow from the tracks.

They have computers now so that as you touch your joy stick, you don’t so much drive the machine as indicate to the computer where you want to go and how fast. The computer’s diagnostics will even tell the mechanic what’s wrong if the machine gets sick.

Consider, too, that you have to stay awake every night, and this can wreak havoc with trying to have a “normal” life. But the rewards include out-of-this-world sunsets and sunrises, animal life like the partridge that tried to hitch rides, and the occasional antics of humans.

If you’re a groomer, you’ve seen it all; and just when you say that, something happens to make you laugh all over again. Like the fellow who skied down at 6 a.m. clad only in boxers and, half-frozen, had to be ferried to ski patrol.

But mostly you just enjoy carving the slopes in your own special way. Just you and your machine blending art and science to give skiers and riders the best possible snow.

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