When you roll off your last ski run and into a hot-tub soak, when the chairlifts come to their quiet halts, when sunset leaves behind a black night: magic happens. Come every evening at each of Utah’s fourteen ski resorts, tiny armies of men and a few women climb into massive, machinated beasts of mountain burden. By morning, these groomers and their snowcats have pushed and tilled the snow on dozens of ski runs into the corduroy that, if they’ve done their jobs right, sounds like a zipper under-ski.
To the vast majority of us who leave behind carved-up slopes and return the next morning to buttery-smooth groomers, what happens under the cover of darkness seems a little David Copperfield-like. In reality, it’s not. Ski-resort grooming is part snow science, part instinct, much caffeine, and—even though those tough-as-nails groomers might not admit it—a lot of love for their mountains and snow.
This winter, I rode along with groomers at three Utah ski resorts to find out what goes down up on the mountain between last chair and first chair.
Smooth Snowbird Sailing
A long string of cars snakes downhill, the Little Cottonwood Canyon ritual signaling the end of a ski day, while my 4Runner makes its growling, uphill effort. I arrive at Snowbird Ski Resort’s snowcat shop as wispy clouds glow like firecrackers in almost-sunset light. Andy Burton, a man with eyes the color of the blue sky between those clouds, ushers me into his office. By winter, Andy oversees the resort’s snowmaking and grooming operations. Rusty Johnson, another upper-echelon department member, joins us. These two guys together possess 56 years of experience on the mountain. I’m sitting with Snowbird history.
“We have the best jobs,” Andy volunteers without journalistic provocation. Before he finishes his sentence, Rusty says, “We wouldn’t trade them for anything.” The two eye each other and Rusty continues, “We’ve both given up marriages, in part, for our jobs.” “Being on the mountain all night works over your personal life,” says Andy, his blue eyes flashing. “Up here, we’re pretty much family, anyway.” The way they finish each other’s sentences makes me think that, indeed, they could be siblings—or just two friends who have passed a good chunk of their lives together—so I ask if they ever fight like a family can. I take their laughter, hard and through raspy voices that have spent a lifetime breathing cold, mountain air, as a yes.
A bit later, I’m in the passenger seat of a snowcat driven by Matt Villa. In his 22nd year on the mountain, 45-year-old Matt is another Snowbird fixture who loves his job. At the moment, Matt is pushing a pile of snow over bare dirt at the edge of a ski run, tweaking joysticks in both hands to make the snowcat and its parts move. “This,” he says, pointing out the cat’s window and smiling like a kid on Christmas morning, “is like playing video games.”
Now it’s 8pm and velvety dark has swallowed the slopes, save for the snowcat’s headlight beams, which lead the way uphill, then downhill, then uphill again. On the back of the snowcat is a tiller, which first churns the snow, then presses it into corduroy. Matt is using it to groom Big Emma, one of Snowbird’s green-circle runs. His job seems as rad as everyone says it is, but I wonder if he’s bothered by its oddities: working almost solo, in the dark, and into the late night. “If I get lonely or bored, I think about my girlfriend and two-year-old down in Salt Lake, and you adapt to these hours, you have to.”
After a few more passes up and down the slope, Matt stops the snowcat and says, “Your turn.” We open the two doors of the snowcat’s cab and exchange places. For the first time ever, I become a heavy machinery operator. Matt points to a knob on the control panel between our seats and explains, “This knob is one of the ways to control the throttle. It’s turned up already. In your left hand are dueling joysticks that control the cat’s two tracks. To move straight ahead, push both of the joysticks forward.”
I take a deep breath, pray I don’t do anything stupid with this $200,000 machine, and engage the joysticks. The snowcat responds and we’re soon moving forward at about five miles per hour. “To get that corduroy, the speed sweet spot varies based upon the snow’s consistency. Tonight, this speed is perfect.” I make one uphill pass on Big Emma, then Matt takes over and turns the cat downhill for the next one. All it takes is one glimpse of my corduroy—a zillion, perfect, parallel ridges running straight down slope—to realize that I, too, could get used to the smooth sailing of this groomer life.
Deer Valley Giants
Dave Smith, one of Deer Valley’s lead groomers, walks in my direction, thrusting his hand forward in anticipation of shaking mine. Most folks call him Tall Dave and they’re right; he probably pushes six-and-a-half-feet tall. Tall Dave leads me to the passenger seat of a snowcat, “Buckle up, I’ll be right back.”
I take a moment to give this idling machine, which looks and feels different from the Snowbird snowcat, a once over. It’s taller and wider, for one. The cab, which smells like a new car’s interior, has room for three bucket seats instead of two. It’s beastly, I decide, as Tall Dave climbs into its captain’s chair. In a manner than can only be described as precise, he arranges himself in the seat, buckles up, looks over the control panel and joysticks, then turns to me and says, “Welcome to the Prinoth Beast. We have a couple of these and they’re new this year.” Like a proud father, Tall Dave continues, “The engine is 500-plus horsepower. It’s several feet wider than our other groomers and weighs in at something like 25,000 pounds. Yeah, it’s a beast.”
We commute to a ski run just below The Montage Deer Valley, which contains eight or so piles of man-made snow. “The resort started making this snow about five days ago. Now it’s ready to be spread out across the slope.” It’s a late December evening, and the snowfall totals for this season have been abysmal. “Deer Valley is operating on almost entirely man-made snow,” says Tall Dave. “Some are years of snow plenty and others are not. We just take them as they come.” For the next three hours, Tall Dave pushes this snow back and forth while I pelt him with questions.
I learn that, though he’s abundantly friendly, he’s a fellow of few words. Except for when I ask him about why he likes his job, and he still sounds like a proud papa, “The peacefulness of night, the stars, the wildlife, the graveyard shift’s sunrises, the views from the top of the mountain. My coworkers are great, too. We see each other before grooming and at a dinner break. The feeling of camaraderie here is strong.” Tall Dave is a grooming lifer. He’s been doing this for 31 years and he doesn’t intend to do anything else. “We don’t get much turnover in our crews. Everyone wants to do exactly this.”
When it’s time for the swing-shift team’s dinner, he drops me off at my car. As the Beast rolls away carrying Tall Dave and his big heart, I’m certain that everything is giant-sized in Deer Valley.
Park City Mountain Resort’s Snow is Brought to You by Laughter
“Hey Joe, is Katie Couric still with you?” Marky Mark’s voice booms over the radio and into the snowcat’s cab. I’ve been riding shotgun with 28-year-old Joe Buhr, who is in his second season as a Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR) groomer. Throughout the evening, I’ve learned learn that Marky Mark, who seems to like his nickname, who has been on the grooming team for quite some time, and who is working somewhere else on the mountain, was supposed to be my grooming guide. Last-minute changes to work assignments foiled that plan and I was allocated to Joe.
All night, Marky Mark has been chatting jovially with Joe and I over PCMR’s grooming channel. Thirty minutes ago, he serenaded us with an extended bout of yodeling. Joe laughed so hard that he had to stop the snowcat, and I laughed until my cheeks hurt. Afterward, Joe said, “He does this almost every night.”
I barely know Joe but I think he needed that good laugh. A couple days ago, his live-in girlfriend broke her back while snowboarding. Her medical situation was stabilized through vertebral-fusion surgery at a hospital in Salt Lake City, but Joe spends every moment he isn’t working with her in the hospital. He seems wildly in love with this woman and it’s clear that her injury weighs heavy on his heart.
“I have a deep respect for this mountain and its snow,” explains Joe when I ask why he’s chosen this line of work. “My hobby is snowboarding. I never used to think about the snow I was riding. Now, I’ve got a whole new eye for its consistency and quality. It’s rewarding to create a surface on which people can have fun.” At his relatively young age and in light of the major personal issue he’s experiencing, I’m impressed with his perspective.
Joe’s introspection continues when I ask him about longevity and this job, which seem to go hand-in-hand at each of the mountains I’ve visited. “I don’t know if I’ll last as long in this job as some of these guys. It’s hard to imagine having a family at home and being at work all night.” Joe pauses, then adds, “Well, one step at a time, I guess. First, we have to get my girlfriend healthy again.”
As the snowcat rolls downhill toward the mountain’s base, where he’ll drop me off, Marky Mark turns up on the radio once more. “I wonder what Joe and Katie Couric are talking about now,” he says. After a moment, he continues, “This one’s for you, Katie.” With that, Marky Mark lapses into another yodeling session. Joe and I look at each other and laugh. In his eyes I see it all: fatigue, worry, joy, sorrow, and a longing for happiness. When he helps me down from the snowcat’s cab, I wish he and his girlfriend luck and health. Joe replies with, “You can see that tonight’s snow is brought to you by a little bit of pain and a lot of laughter.”
Snowcats, vehicles made for oversnow travel, are basically composed of a climate-controlled cab, tracks made of rubber and metal, and an engine. At ski resorts, snowcats are modified for snow moving and grooming. Typically, a ski-resort snowcat has what is called a pusher on the front that moves snow and a tiller on the back that first churns and then presses snow into corduroy. Some modern snowcats have winches, too. These snowcats, called winch cats, are used to groom a resort’s steepest ski slopes, which are too steep for even a burly snowcat to maintain traction without extra support. Winch cats attach the cable of their winch to a post at the top of a ski slope, and then use the winch to lower and raise themselves on a ski slope for grooming. Here are some more fun facts about local grooming operations:
Snowcat fleets: Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR) has 19 snowcats between those used to groom ski slopes, care for the terrain parks, and groom their off-site tubing location, Gorgoza Park.
Deer Valley Resort has 13 snowcats, including two Prinoth Beasts, which are larger and more powerful snowcat models than anything else on the snowcat market. As a comparison, the Prinoth Beast weighs 25,000 pounds, lies down a 24-foot corduroy pass and has a 13-liter diesel engine. “Regular” Prinoth snowcats weigh about 20,000 pounds, lay an 18-foot pass, and have a nine-liter diesel engine.
Snowcat makers: PistenBully and Prinoth
Snowcat price tags: between $250,000 and $270,000 for a “regular” snowcat, around $330,000 for a winch cat, and $450,000 for the Prinoth Beast
Snowcat operational costs: Snowcats cost roughly $100 an hour to operate, including labor, gas, and other expenses. Most snowcats are in operation for 14 to 15 hours each night over two work shifts.
Snowcat lifespan: PCMR uses their snowcats for 8,000 to10,000 hours (5 to 6 years) before trading them. Deer Valley Resort has a three-year, 5,000-hour lease agreement with Prinoth.