Of all the jobs at a ski area, grooming the slopes at night might be the best one. You get to sculpt the slopes into perfect strips of corduroy at night, then rip them up the next morning. Snow-cat operators know when the slopes are at their prime. When Bruce Engdahl, Crystal’s lead winch cat operator, is in line at the Gondola in the morning, you know it’s going to be a good day on the slopes.
Henry Schink, Crystal’s Grooming Supervisor, says that “every night is a chance to make (the slopes) better.” Some nights are more challenging than others, however. On stormy nights, when the snowflakes hit his spotlight like that scene from Star Wars, just getting around the mountain becomes tricky. Those nights, Henry says, “you have to use the force.” You develop a close relationship to the trees, following them like handrails until you find a familiar landmark. In essence, you groom by feel. After a particularly busy day on the slopes, the cat crew knows they will have one or two curve balls that night. Around every corner might be a heavily skied area requiring an hour of cat maintenance to get it back in shape for the next day. Regardless of the snow conditions, these guys know their job is to rebuild the slopes so skiers and riders can enjoy them again the next day.
We ski patrollers rely on guys like Henry and Bruce to clean up the mountain, making our jobs exponentially easier. Every day the ski patrol puts in a list of grooming requests, from mucking out the bottom of lift terminals to filling in creeks to widening runs, and every night Henry, Bruce and the rest of their seven person crew try their best to knock down the moguls and rebuild the slopes.
Making perfect corduroy takes more than experienced operators. It also takes good machines. Crystal’s cats are all Pisten Bullys, and nearly all of them are 600s, the most powerful model. We use exclusively PB machines because with all the steep terrain and heavy snow at Crystal, we need the highest quality cats that are both robust and efficient. According to Mountain Manager Scott Bowen, PBs are the most durable cats on the market. We currently have 4 600 winch cats, 4 600 free cats, and a 200 maintenance cat. Each cat is equipped with the new alpenflex tiller with dumbo ears which allows for wider paths and immaculate grooming.
Two of our free cats are the new PB 600E+, a diesel electric hybrid that uses 35% less fuel, which is a huge reduction in cost and emissions. Crystal was the first ski area in North America to order the 600E+ last year, and we got two. Now, Vail and Alta each bought the 600E+ and Whistler Backcomb is currently demoing one.
Snow-cats are miracle workers on the slopes. Each blade full of snow can push 6 cubic yards of snow. At 1200lb each yard, that’s 7200lb of snow with every push. That’s over 3 metric tons.
Grooming the slopes is like snow farming. When it snows, cat operator fill in creeks and re-contour the slopes. During dry periods, cat operators farm snow by trimming thin strips off the grade or else pulling it from the edges of runs to rebuild the slopes. On Lucky Shot, where a winch cat is required, the main job is to push the snow at the bottom of each face back up on the slope. During the day, all the thousands of skiers and riders on this popular run move tons of snow downhill. Only with a big 600 winch cat and an experienced operator does Lucky Shot get rebuilt each night.
According to Scott Bowen, “we are blessed with amazing drivers.” It’s only with the skills of this talented crew and the big machines they chariot across the slopes do we end up with great skiing day after day.
Check out this video of grooming high angle slopes at Sugarloaf with a winch cat. And if you see Bruce in the line at the gondola this week, go ahead and give him a hug. We all owe these guys our gratitude.