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A Night in the Life of a Mt. Ellen Snowcat Operator

post #1 of 15
Thread Starter 
Warning: Obnoxiously long post below!  I posted this over at AZ months ago, and had intended to cross post it over here as well, since so many skiers also seem to be fascinated by the behind-the-scenes aspect of the sport.  But alas, I forgot.  However... a grooming discussion over at SJ reminded me of that thread, so I decided to finally post it here!  Better late than never, right???



You are about to learn what a whole grooming shift is like. Read on at your own risk!  I figured I could go ahead and put together a little bit of a realtime description of what actually goes on at night. It's so common for the recreational skier to have absolutely no idea what happens after the lifts close at 4. When they're all heading the bar/hotel/whatever at the end of their day, our day is just getting started!


3:45PM -- Arrive at vehicle maintenance shop. At this point, we punch in, review the night's grooming plan, get the machines running and warmed up, and then do a pre-operations inspection of the snowcats. We check ATF for the hydraulic/hydrostat system, we check engine oil, light operation, track tension, and check for general integrity of the frame and implements. After the pre-ops, we head back into the shop and discuss anything of note for the evening, i.e. dumpster transports, building start ramps for a race, specific patterns, etc. We usually have about 20 minutes or so just to stand around and BS before sweeps come down.

4:40PM -- Patrol sweeps are down and the mountain is clear. Now the fun begins. We hop in the cats, and start making our way up the mountain. Depending on what trails are on the plan, we may groom as a pair, or individually. The biggest chunks of acreage, such as Inverness, we work on together. Inverness is 12 passes wide, and each loop with the base area takes a good 35 minutes. We also grooming Northway and the Expressway in conjunction with Inverness.

Other trails we split up and do some work ourselves. For the most part, this is the "daily grind" of grooming. But there are plenty of exciting nights, especially freegrooming the steeper pitches. Most folks don't realize that a pitch like the top headwall of Inverness should be winched. However, because our winch at Mt. Ellen broke down early in the season, we were tasked with freegrooming it every night. This is okay in medium-hard snow, but a challenge in icy or soft conditions. If it's icy, the lighter machine could not make it up over the headwall, and slides on the way down the headwall. In soft snow, neither machine could climb without augering a nice "coffin" into the trail. So in fresh snow conditions without a hard base a couple inches beneath, we have no choice but to go around and make down passes. Now there are several problems with this. First of all, it takes a long time. Second of all, because skiers spend all day pushing snow downhill, we want to push it back uphill. But if we can't climb the trail, we don't have a choice. The third problem is that it can be, how do they say it now, "sketchy" going down over the headwall in deep fresh. I've gone into many a fun slide. I use the word fun, but it is also scary. The trail humps toward the middle on the headwall, so there is a slight sidehill on both sides. On skiers' left, you slide uncomfortably close to the treeline. On skiers' right, you slide very much uncomfortably close to one particular lift tower. Regardless, it's certainly a rush, and there are methods of controlling the slide. For example, in a moderate slide, increasing ground speed and punching the accelerator may be enough to catch yourself up to your slide. In a more extreme case, you are forced to resort to techniques such as frame riding and blade steering. Exciting stuff, really! And the evening rolls on. At Mt. Ellen, we usually work one trail/area at a time. Then:

8:00PM -- Head to the shop or to the Glen House for a lunch break. We sit down, relax a bit, have a bite to eat, discuss anything of pertinence related to grooming, and then we solve all of the other problems of the world. 8:45 -- Head back out to another section of the mountain. If we ate at the shop, we usually stay on lower mountain and leave upper for the morning shift. We would proceed to Cruiser or Which Way or Northstar, depending on the plan. But there's more to it than that. Along the way, we have to do the little things, like backing up to each lift, taking care of seemingly unimportant areas like Mainstream and "Time Square" (base of Northridge/Drive of Slidebrook). Aside from that, we just keep on grooming. If we ate lunch at Glen House, we proceed to upper mountain, and do Elbow and Upper Rim Run, or just all of Rim Run. If we don't have Inverness to groom at all, the scene is entirely different, and we can finish most of the main mountain ourselves in one shift.

11:15PM -- Start working our way down the hill. We head for the fuel pump, proceed to pump 30-50 gallons of diesel in each machine, and then park at the shop. If the next shift needs both cats, we leave them warm and running. Otherwise, we shut one down, clean it off (brush/shovel snow), and plug it in. That's a fairly typical night grooming at Mt. Ellen.



Now, let's have a look at what we do when we are grooming. It's not just driving over the snow, as many believe it is. The age old theory is, "if you don't have a full blade of snow all night, you're not grooming!" We're always pushing snow around. Pushing it uphill, flattening out the humps and bumps, and bringing it back in from the sides. A busy day can result in tons and tons of snow moving from the middle of the trail to the sides of a trail. We have to fix that! Under most circumstances, you are skiing a completely resurfaced trail each day, not just a "tilled" trail. Lots and lots of blade work!

So here are a few pictures to demonstrate some of what goes on. In the photo below, I am working a windrow across Rim Run. I am pulling the excess snow out of the edge, and bringing it back to the middle. This starts as a very large windrow, and as you work toward the middle, you "dump" some of the snow to fill where the snow was pushed toward the edge. The result is a resurfaced trail. You can also work with windrows, even without cutting the edge. You can blade a little deeper and really turn the snow over, and move it around the trail.




And here is a sort of a "start to finish" set of photos. This was during a morning shift I worked near the end of the season. This is Crackerjack. It's flat, so there's nothing particularly exciting.

Getting started:


Gettin there:


Finished and smooth:


And just for fun, here are some more various grooming photos. Older PB300:


If a cat doesn't have sticks/paddles, it has a yoke. Stupid concept, in my opinion, but it gets the job done:


Newer Prinoth BR-350:


Demo PB400 (awesome machine!):


Cab of the PB400:


Tiller on the PB400:




More in the next post......
post #2 of 15
Thread Starter 
Is that a UFO??? Nope... just the winch cat coming up over Cliffs using my cat as his anchor (pick point):



Another shot of the old PB300:



Sometimes visibility is an issue:



But it is awfully beautiful up there (Panorama):



And we make this stuff called corduroy (I make it all night, and avoid it all day!):



Here I am, sitting in the office:



And here's the old man (Mt. Ellen GM), still visiting the operator's seat from time to time:

post #3 of 15
+1, the hero to all novices and groomies finally shows everyone how it's done.

"thread is worthless without pics" smiley not necessary.
post #4 of 15
Thanks I always wondered how you do what you guys do.
post #5 of 15
AWESOME REPORT!

That's great stuff, bmm.  Thanks so much for posting it here.

Very cool.

post #6 of 15
Yes, very cool.  Thanks for posting it Patrick!
post #7 of 15
Thread Starter 
My pleasure, folks.  I figure it's only fair that I share a little of my fun with you!

The ski industry is simply one of the most fun, fascinating businesses in existence.  You just have to be ok with never getting rich.  What's the old adage???  "If you want to make a large fortune in the ski industry, start with a small one!"
post #8 of 15
Back in the day I had a friend who was a groomer - always though the had the best job in ski bumming.  Work from 4 - 12 ski from 9 - 3:30 and report to work right on the hill.  Great report and pics.  I'll try to avoid sampling your work as well.
post #9 of 15
Thanks for posting.  Last season, I sat in the bar at the Mammoth Mtn Inn and watch the groomers up on Scotty's do their thing.  Scotty's is pretty steep. 
post #10 of 15
Thanks, great idea for a thread, even a wiki!  However, I couldn't help but notice that there were photos of a snow cat grooming in a snowstorm
post #11 of 15
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by crgildart View Post

However, I couldn't help but notice that there were photos of a snow cat grooming in a snowstorm


If that's making you , imagine how I feel out there being essentially forced to flatten the fresh!

But, I do it anyway.  Besides, then I know exactly where NOT to ski in the morning!
post #12 of 15
Quote:
Originally Posted by BushMogulMaster View Post





If that's making you , imagine how I feel out there being essentially forced to flatten the fresh!

But, I do it anyway.  Besides, then I know exactly where NOT to ski in the morning!

LOL, but you probably atone for your sins by seeding sweet bumps!
post #13 of 15
Patrick-
Thanks for the post. As one who grew up in Warren and Waitsfield in the 70s I really enjoyed the pics. As a teenager I hung around with the "trail crew" whose job was to manually pack the steeper trails up on Castlerock. Of course "Sugarbush North" didn't exist - it was Glen Ellen then. I really have to try to make some time and get out there and ski some of the runs I haven't skied since my college days. What are the best bump runs out there? In my day it was Stein's and The Mall.
post #14 of 15
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by clfjmpr View Post

Patrick-
Thanks for the post. As one who grew up in Warren and Waitsfield in the 70s I really enjoyed the pics. As a teenager I hung around with the "trail crew" whose job was to manually pack the steeper trails up on Castlerock. Of course "Sugarbush North" didn't exist - it was Glen Ellen then. I really have to try to make some time and get out there and ski some of the runs I haven't skied since my college days. What are the best bump runs out there? In my day it was Stein's and The Mall.


Best bumps are at Mt. Ellen now.  We focus quite a lot on moguls and natural terrain at Ellen.  As far as Lincoln Peak, Mall is still good, and Middle Earth (although they even groom it from time to time).  Spillsville usually has a nice line or two.  But the best bumps are at Ellen, usually on Cliffs, Tumbler, Bravo, and Exterminator.  For lower-angle bumps, Lookin' Good and Which Way set up nicely.  FIS and Black Diamond have some gnarly bumps, and good pitch to go with them.  Then there are bumps on Hammerhead, Encore, Semi-Tough, and Lower Northstar. Maybe even on skiers' left of Elbow this season.
post #15 of 15
Thanks for posting this. Nice to see what you guys get up to on the mountain in the dark!

Lets hope that all the snow falls after the grooming is complete ;)
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