EpicSki › Interview and Experiences Articles › A Night In The Life Of A Snowcat Operator

A Night in the Life of a Snowcat Operator


For most people, a day at the ski resort ends around 4:00PM. But for a few twilight warriors, the day is just beginning. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a groomer, here’s your chance to get a sneak-peek into a “Night in the Life of a Snowcat Operator.”


Your job is to spend the night undoing what the skiers spent their day doing. You cut off bumps, you fill low spots, you move snow back uphill and toward the center of trails. You resurface and refresh the snow, so that the skiers can enjoy it all over again the next day. Your job is both art and science. You’re a “rookie” for at least 4 years, and you’re not a veteran for many, many more. But you are a groomer, and you have the best job in the world!


It’s 3:45 pm, and you arrive at vehicle maintenance shop for your swing shift. After you punch in, it’s time to review the night's grooming plan. Your supervisor has outlined your assignments, and you have a short window to ask questions or get clarification on grooming tasks or special projects before he heads home to sleep like the rest of the world. Once your tasks are clear, it’s time get your machine running and warmed up. But first things first: pre-operations inspection. 


You take a walk around the machine, looking over the track belts, grousers, tires, sprockets, and frame. You have a look at your blade frame and hoses, and your tiller lifting frame, tiller hoses, and the tiller itself. You check your motor oil, hydraulic oil, and coolant, and you’re sure to unplug your block heater. Driving off while still plugged in can have shocking results after all. And now it’s time to fire the old girl up. If it’s below zero, you may have to crank on it for a while, but never more than 30 seconds at a time. You don’t want to burn up a starter. Once she’s running, you take a quick look/listen/smell for anything unusual, then you head back into the shop for 10 or 15 minutes while the cat warms up, and you chat with the mechanics and fellow groomers.


It’s about 4:45 pm, and you finally hear the call you’ve been waiting for: “sweeps are down and the mountain is clear.” That means patrol has finished the end-of-day trail sweeps or closing procedures, and the mountain is cleared for snowcat activity. So you hop in, release your brake, and head toward the hill. You’re starting with the race trail, since race coaches always want hard snow--the earlier you groom it, the longer it has to set up. You may be heading out with a fleet of other machines and operators, or maybe you’re going it alone. Either way, you knock out that race trail first.


If there’s fresh snow and you’re not winching, you might find yourself sliding down the steeper pitches. You’re nervous at first, but soon you’re “yee-haw-ing” your way down, catching up to your slides and steering as necessary with your blade and tiller. And you might even make a mistake or two. But since you’re a good operator, you take the time to fix your “oops” moments, whether it’s a blade dive or your tiller spilling out a small windrow.


Once the race trail is out of the way, you’re heading for your other tasks. Each trail has its own character, and you learn the best patterns for each trail and each type of condition. Usually you’re working high-side to low-side, but every now and then you have to bring some snow back up from the low side. Some trails have so many fall-lines you have to flip a coin to decide which side to start on. Others you find come out best when you skip-pass. You’ve discovered that skip passing works great in fresh snow to avoid leaving ridges or windrows. To skip-pass, you start your first pass uphill. Your downhill pass, however, does not connect to your uphill pass. Instead, you “skip” over about a half-pass. Then on your next uphill pass, you climb up in between the two finished passes. Uphill passes are easier to leave clean than downhill passes in fresh snow, especially if there’s any side hill involved. You’re always looking in your mirror to make sure your corduroy “pattern” looks clean and smooth.

If there’s a lot of fresh snow, you may not be able to climb all of your trails without a winch cat. You’re always surprised that you struggle to climb even novice and intermediate trails if the snow is deep enough. But you try all the tricks first, like setting your tiller in up-pressure which reduces drag; reducing your tiller depth-of-cut for the same reason; then you bounce your blade around a little and wiggle the sticks or wheel to see if you can regain traction. Finally, you have to abort! You pick up your tiller and back out. Now it’s time to go to Plan B: downhill grooming. You choose a shallower pitch trail to climb that allows you to approach the steeper trail from above, making all of your passes downhill. You find yourself leaving a little windrow on your finished side, so you turn up the up-pressure a bit, and drop your depth just a touch. Still spilling. You increase your tiller speed a little to keep up with all of the material in the tiller chamber, and you articulate your tiller half-way to the finished side. Ha! You did it! It’s coming out clean and seamless!


But then again, the snow might be nasty hard pack, and it’s all you can do to get your blade into it. You look in your mirror, and all you see are grouser marks; time to adjust your tiller and your blading. You remember what you learned from the veteran groomers: that “you’re not a real operator unless you’re consistently carrying a full blade of snow.” So you focus a little more on good blading, breaking the surface and carrying a roll of snow in front of you. It’s probably coming up a little chunky, but after scraping against the blade screen and being crushed under your tracks, your tiller is ready to work with it. So you start to think about your tiller. You need a good depth to make sure you’re processing enough of that hard pack to leave a long-lasting corduroy surface, but you don’t want to go too deep or you’ll leave ridges on the sides and the center of your pass. While you usually want to keep your tiller speed a little lower in soft snow, the hard pack is just not cooperating. So you crank that tiller speed up until your pass looks smooth and homogeneous. Off you go. But when you look in your mirror, it’s still not great. The only thing left to do is slow down and “half-pass” by overlapping about halfway onto your finished passes. And then you crawl along, grouser-by-grouser. But your grooming is good, and the skiers would be glad for your patience, if only they had any idea at all just how much effort and thought it takes to provide good grooming in tough conditions!


Under the worst of conditions, you may have no choice but to do a full trail “rebuild.” So you dig your blade aggressively into the “snow” and tear it up. It comes up in big chunks that *POP* up in your blade as the surface fractures. You work your way up and down the trail, moving snow back up and toward the center. You carry a big windrow back and forth, and you track it all up. Then you drive away for a while to let it set up. Later, you can come back and finish grooming it. It was arduous work, and hard on the cat. But you did it: you turned “ice” back into “snow.”


Around 8:00 pm, the shift foreman is getting hungry and calls for a “lunch” break. You probably have a favorite lunch spot, either at an unlocked on-mountain warming hut or lodge, or maybe just back down at the shop if you’re at a smaller mountain. Either way, it’s time for a break. And since groomers don’t usually take any other breaks, its might be a little more than the usual half-hour. You enjoy your lunch, catch up with some fellow groomers, compare your thoughts about the snow surface, strategize for the rest of the shift, shoot the breeze about the Super Bowl, maybe have your evening cigarette, and just kick back a bit. Every once in a while, it dawns on you anew that you’re getting paid to spend the night in the mountains, on the snow, in a $300,000 powerful machine, with comfy a Recaro Racing seat, a powerful heater, and a nice stereo. All while you expend your energy on your passion: snow and skiing! Life’s pretty good; infinitesimal paycheck notwithstanding.


About 8:45 pm, it’s time to get back to the grind to finish up your assigned part of the grooming plan. Lunch revitalized you a bit, so you attack the next trail with a renewed energy. But it’s getting late, and the fuel pump is calling. By around 11:00, you’re heading back for the shop. You get in line at the fuel pump, and wait your turn. When you get the pump, you start refilling your machine. You grab a shovel and clear snow and ice off of the blade and blade-frame, the tiller, and the back platform or doghouse on the cat. You might take a look in the sight glass for your hydraulic fluid to make sure you didn’t lose any during the shift. Snowcats are notorious for hydraulic leaks. You give the cabin a quick wipe down. And then you hear that unmistakable “click.” Pump is finished, your tank is full. You put the fuel cap back on, and fill out the fuel log. You pumped about 45 gallons of diesel fuel to refill. Then you head back to your parking space, plug in your block heater, and shut down the cat. No need to wait for it to cool down… it cooled down as you were pumping fuel. You go inside and fill out the shift paperwork, signing off on the terrain you covered. You might need to fill out a work order if you had any bugs with your machine.


Your grave shift colleagues are arriving for their midnight-8 am work, and you fill them in on anything they need to know for their shift. At the stroke of midnight, you punch out, and head home for a cold beer followed by a good night’s rest. When you get up the next morning, you have the whole day ahead of you while the rest of the world works. What do you want to do? Ski all day? Catch up on that remodeling project you’ve been putting off? Sleep in? Watch TV? The day is yours, until around 3:30 pm when you hop in the truck and head back to the shop to start it all over again. You are a groomer, and you have the best job in the world.


by Patrick Torsell, Director of Marketing & Sales at Ski Cooper, CO (former Grooming Supervisor, and 2015 Colorado Ski Country USA Groomer of the Year, 2009 CMC Ski Area Operations Grad)

Comments (17)

Great article, Patrick--thanks! And thanks for what you do for skiers everywhere.
Fascinating, thank you!
I loved it!  Now fill me in on the details. You used a lot of jargon that I have never heard.  What does changing the tiller speed do?  What is a windrow?  Give me all the gory details.
I had no idea how tough it was on a groomer to deal with hard/icy conditions. What do groomers do on the east coast when you're dealing with *true* ice? Can you still break through that and turn it into "snow"?
Thanks for the kind words, all.

@superorbital - you'll have to schedule a ride-along to learn the nitty gritty gory details!

@LiveJazz - if it's true ice, and not just an inch or two of ice with snow under it, then that's a little more challenging. Usually you find that kind of ice in patches, rather than on full trails. Thick, deep, solid ice doesn't break up like hardpack or a thin layer of ice. In fact, your blade won't even get into it. Often, the most practical solution is to scarify the icy with the blade teeth and grousers, then push a foot of snow on top of the the icy area, and hope that it bonds!
I can schedule a ride along?  Sign me up!
Sure, if you're in the area. I don't spend much time in the cat anymore, but I can commandeer one anytime.
Great article.  Thanks!
Great read... thanks! They do a phenomenal job at my local, as does the snowmaking crew.
Fantastic article and a great read about a key technical aspect of operating a ski area.  I really enjoyed reading this.  Thanks.  
I will be at Ski Cooper a lot next season for the Cooper Cup racing.  I will bring some single malt for a ride!
Great piece, I learned a lot.
I was lucky enough to ride along on a night grooming session in the Alps last year, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. The operator drove tractors on a wheat farm in summer and a snowcat in winter. It was fascinating to watch him operate the joystick: his fingers were always in movement. It made me appreciate that morning corduroy a lot more.
Love this article and it indeed satisfied my curiosity.  Does any of you know if any ski resorts that offer a ride along for few hours in the snowcat mobile, to experience the grooming process?  I'd love to do that after a day of skiing.  Thanks!
Me too @fosphenytoin!
Great read.  You even got kudos from Barnes, who is an old-school bumper at heart...
Thanks @skiii. I'm an oldschool bumper myself. I love grooming and snow science, but when the F17s are strapped to my feet, I'm avoiding the cruisers at all costs!
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