A Hard Day's Night

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Hard Day's Night

WHAT A STUPID WAY TO DIE. All I had to do was make a gun run. Kick steps down White Nitro. Shake the kinks out of the hoses. Check to be sure the nozzles were spraying. But I neglected to wear the right boots, forgot to carry an ice ax for emergency self-arrest. So now I'm sliding headlong in the dark, a flailing human toboggan on this icy double black diamond. Fifty yards, sixty yards, seventy-five yards. It's 17 below zero. The wind is screaming at a bitchy 25 miles per hour. It's almost midnight, Friday. And the snow guns. Those jet-loud machines are attacking me one by one, a procession of little blizzards, mocking my ineptitude under a yellow North Woods moon.

I rocket downslope on my belly, floundering like a newborn moose on black ice, tormented all the while by a pair of unsettling epiphanies. The first: I...am...screwed. The second: This...job...sucks.

But I asked for it. I came here, to Sugarloaf, Maine, in the dead of winter, to see what it's like to make snow after hours. And to see who on earth has the questionable judgment to endure such abysmal work conditions. Somehow I swing my appendages around, getting myself feet-first and face-up; then, perhaps out of spite, I zero in on the nearest obstacle that's sturdy enough to slow my fall-a snow gun-and I take that thing out like I'm stealing home in the bottom of the ninth.

Make no mistake. Snowmaking has fantastic allure. You get to beat on heavy machinery. You get to swing an ice ax. You often get to wield a blowtorch and shout "flush 'er out" or "light 'em up" into a walkie-talkie.

Sometimes you ride a snowmobile. But for all its chest-hair-thickening, manly rewards, snowmaking can be unrepentantly dangerous, even deadly. Take the snowmaker over at Jay Peak, Vermont, a few years back. He was wearing crampons when he stepped on, and punctured, a fully charged water line and got firehosed into a creek. Or Benjamin Borstein. Last November, the 28-year-old got stuck in a flooded sub-terranean vault that's part of Keystone's snowmaking system-and he never got out. Still, to a select few, mixing water and air under miserable circumstances is a fair enough trade for a free season pass and all the coffee you can drink.

The results of these soldierly efforts are many feet deep and many acres wide and very skiable. While New Englanders romanticize the consistent dumps of a globally cooler yesteryear, snowmakers throughout the northern woods are scuttling about, fabricating winter where it isn't. They call their product "retail snow." Here on Maine's second-tallest mountain, 92 percent of the 515 carvable acres are covered in manmade. In a season, that's roughly 2,000 football fields, one foot deep.

To make snow is, fundamentally, to transport and combine water and air. The man who keeps the ingredients moving and mixing at the Loaf is Dan Barker, head of snowmaking. Forty-four, five and a half feet tall, and bearlike, Barker presides over a boggling complex of pumps (five, at 750 horsepower each), compressors (five, at 1,250 hp each), pipes (40 miles), hoses (40 miles), hydrants (875), and nozzles (countless). "Right now I got eight guys on Nitro, three guns on Upper Gauge, and 60 more to light up by 7 p.m.," Barker tells me, the pride heavy in his voice. Behind him, the top of Sugarloaf is socked in-a multigun whiteout of his alchemized fluff. In Barker's control room, a sign on the wall lists the Key Points for Snowmaking Operations. Number one is Retail Quality Through and Through. Number two is No Tracks of Any Kind on Manmade Snow.

Hustling around the equipment house and garage, Barker explains the system. Water is pumped from the Carrabassett River (about two miles away) at up to 3,000 gallons per minute. It goes up the mountain through an underground line, then back downhill, where it's diverted to hundreds of trailside hydrants. Meanwhile, air is getting compressed, cooled, and shot uphill at 160 pounds per sare inch. Turn the valves, and the crystals start falling-to the tune of $15 million worth of equipment and about a million bucks a year in electricity. On a good day, maybe five degrees with a light wind, Barker can cover a hundred yards of slope a foot deep in an hour. "Where I go, it snows," he says.

It's midnight on Saturday, and a chunk of my flesh is burning. A little spot between my goggles and face mask that somehow got exposed. But there's nothing I can do about it. I'm clutching the back of a snowmobile doing 50 miles an hour and the driver keeps trying to catch air. "This is the fun part," he shouts over the whiny throttle of a 500cc Ski-Doo. The man at the handlebars is John Markham, and he's a four-year snowmaking veteran from the state of Maine, and for these reasons I trust he won't kill us. "We gotta go deal with a problem," he bellows. The trouble is a breach in the line on Hayburner; a high-pressure gusher is turning the beloved expert run into a tilted, frozen lake. "Somebody get me a kayak," joked a voice over the radio, just moments before. "We got a Class V up here."

"My guess is the guts in the line are blown," says Markham, 24, assessing the 500-gallon-per-minute flood scene. In the background, a cast of Gore-Tex-clad extras-the grunts-nods in silent agreement. The beams from their headlamps bob and collide, as if the devices were being worn by chickens. "I wouldn't get too close to that," Markham warns, as a grunt goes in for a better look at the torrent. The water from the buried pipe could be eating away at the snowpack, he explains: "What little snow is on top could give, and you could fall into the rapid." He speaks with the quiet confidence that explains his status as crew chief, an unofficial title that means he's not quite a foreman but miles beyond grunt. Markham goes into a valve box, muscles a few knobs, cranks a few levers, rearranges some hoses. Problem solved. Then we just hang out while losing precious body heat. "This is the not-so-fun part," he says. "You work up a sweat, then you stand around in the cold and wait."

And that is how it works. Nighttime snowmakers maintain the equipment and try to stay warm until there's something else to do.

It's zero degrees, tops, and Markham speaks with measured enthusiasm about earth glows, moose sightings, and Rudolf Steiner's theory of biodynamic farming. He is a granola-munching science guy who wants to run his own organic farm. For now, though, he makes snow for eight bucks an hour, "the other not-so-fun part." But it beats being a liftie or a desk jerk, he says, and "you get to see barn owls and aurora borealis and spend all night in the woods." Like the other eight snowmakers out tonight, Markham works the 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. shift, four days on, three days off. During his on days, he lives at the bottom of the mountain on the roof of the compressor room, where he sleeps in a bivy sack.

Twenty marrow-freezing minutes pass before the night foreman, Stephan MacPhee, arrives by snowcat and tells Markham to head for Top of Spillway, a mid-mountain hut where the night crew often regroups. I opt for the short ride in MacPhee's heated, tape-deck-equipped Bombardier. "I'm an insomniac," rasps MacPhee, as we shake off the cold and settle into the hut. "I blacked out my windows at home, but my body won't let me sleep in the day. Maybe I'll get two hours every few days," he says, and the bags under his eyes corroborate his story. In the hut, the heater has kicked and Markham can't fix it. The best we can do is open the oven door, which brings the mercury inside to a cozy 10 above. It is now 1 a.m. MacPhee lights an American Spirit. "This job is bad for my health."

MacPhee is a first-year foreman, a tired but friendly 26-year-old from Massachusetts who cut his teeth making snow for minimum wage. Now he makes nine bucks an hour. Like the others, he also gets a free season pass-"the real reason we do this job," he says. MacPhee is a devout snowboarder who logs 100-plus days each season. I expected to meet a crew comprised of whiskey-bent moose poachers who chainsaw old growth for toilet paper. But everyone on this crew works on the mountain so they can ride it. I wonder why they don't seek employment as lifties so they can keep regular hours. When I pose this question to MacPhee, he barely validates the idea; it's like asking a Chevy guy why he doesn't drive a Ford.

Tonight MacPhee earns his keep by looking after seven guys who tend to four guns on the Birches, 15 on Tote, 18 on Nitro, and at least a dozen on Sluice. But the guns drool and clog. The hoses kink and freeze. The hydrants act up, or don't act at all. This is where the gun run comes in, wherein the snowmakers chink the nozzles clear with an ice ax, de-kink the hoses, and occasionally torch an ice-jammed pipe. Then they check the snow quality the old fashioned way-they get snowed on. If the crystals blow off their jacket sleeves like powder, the snow is good. If the crystals are sticky and wet, the snow needs fixing.

From his walkie-talkie in the hut at Top of Spillway, MacPhee has sentenced his crew to ride the J-chair in the dark, where they brace themselves against 20-mile-an-hour winds after a nasty two-hour gun run. "It's their lunch break, but I just didn't feel like picking them up in the cat," he says, smirking devilishly. Then he takes a moment to shut his eyes, a grown-up repose before the children barge in, full of noise and stinking up the place. They shake snow everywhere. They fry packaged foods in butter. They inhale processed meats and proudly expel the fumes. They make penis jokes and girlfriend jokes and generally insult one another-the sum chaos that occurs when young men gather in one room. And they smoke. Like a Maine chimney fire, they smoke.

A typical member of MacPhee's crew is male and under 29 and from points north of Pennsylvania. As is common among subordinates within any workforce, each guy plays a role. Asa Wagner gets picked on, but only because he can take it. Richard Fricke is funny, in a way that wouldn't be so funny if everyone wasn't so cold. There's Justin Cobb, an aspiring agri-biz man, and Fred Rowe, a friendly, barrel-chested crew chief who could thump his way out of a barroom brawl and then back in for another pint. And there are the others: Pat, who is always sleeping; Chad, who is always dipping; Roy, who is always smiling.

The conversation varies with the ebb and flow of male bunkhouse chatter. While the non-PC Fricke has everyone in stitches about "some Down's syndrome cokehead" he got drunk with in a bar in Vermont, Markham and Cobb are engaged in heavy debate.

Markham: "Organic farming is the only thing that's gonna save this country from ruin."

Cobb: "We're all gonna die anyway. I'm going to work for Monsanto and make some money."

Markham: "Monsanto made Agent Orange!"

Cobb: "Yeah, and Agent Orange helped us win Vietnam."

The loser of that firefight hears about it. So does the guy who takes someone's last cigarette, or tries to change the station when Neil Young comes on. At Top of Spillway, it's a cage match of sociocomedic one-upmanship; no one has immunity from insults. But mention such discreditables as lifties ("friggin' robots") or tourists from Massachusetts ("friggin' Massholes!") and the brotherhood unites; it's the instinctual loyalty shared by men with crappy jobs.

And the job gets all the way bad. Anthony Russo, for example, finished a gun run last November and decided to slide down Boardwalk. He carried a plastic "butt sled" for such occasions. Russo hit maybe 40 miles per hour before slamming into a ditch, double-fracturing his pelvis. Some other guy, some other time, was messing with an open-air hydrant, only to have a metal ring shoot off at 160 psi, lodging in the side of his helmet.

But no living snowmaker here has had it says. MacPhee is a devout snowboarder who logs 100-plus days each season. I expected to meet a crew comprised of whiskey-bent moose poachers who chainsaw old growth for toilet paper. But everyone on this crew works on the mountain so they can ride it. I wonder why they don't seek employment as lifties so they can keep regular hours. When I pose this question to MacPhee, he barely validates the idea; it's like asking a Chevy guy why he doesn't drive a Ford.

Tonight MacPhee earns his keep by looking after seven guys who tend to four guns on the Birches, 15 on Tote, 18 on Nitro, and at least a dozen on Sluice. But the guns drool and clog. The hoses kink and freeze. The hydrants act up, or don't act at all. This is where the gun run comes in, wherein the snowmakers chink the nozzles clear with an ice ax, de-kink the hoses, and occasionally torch an ice-jammed pipe. Then they check the snow quality the old fashioned way-they get snowed on. If the crystals blow off their jacket sleeves like powder, the snow is good. If the crystals are sticky and wet, the snow needs fixing.

From his walkie-talkie in the hut at Top of Spillway, MacPhee has sentenced his crew to ride the J-chair in the dark, where they brace themselves against 20-mile-an-hour winds after a nasty two-hour gun run. "It's their lunch break, but I just didn't feel like picking them up in the cat," he says, smirking devilishly. Then he takes a moment to shut his eyes, a grown-up repose before the children barge in, full of noise and stinking up the place. They shake snow everywhere. They fry packaged foods in butter. They inhale processed meats and proudly expel the fumes. They make penis jokes and girlfriend jokes and generally insult one another-the sum chaos that occurs when young men gather in one room. And they smoke. Like a Maine chimney fire, they smoke.

A typical member of MacPhee's crew is male and under 29 and from points north of Pennsylvania. As is common among subordinates within any workforce, each guy plays a role. Asa Wagner gets picked on, but only because he can take it. Richard Fricke is funny, in a way that wouldn't be so funny if everyone wasn't so cold. There's Justin Cobb, an aspiring agri-biz man, and Fred Rowe, a friendly, barrel-chested crew chief who could thump his way out of a barroom brawl and then back in for another pint. And there are the others: Pat, who is always sleeping; Chad, who is always dipping; Roy, who is always smiling.

The conversation varies with the ebb and flow of male bunkhouse chatter. While the non-PC Fricke has everyone in stitches about "some Down's syndrome cokehead" he got drunk with in a bar in Vermont, Markham and Cobb are engaged in heavy debate.

Markham: "Organic farming is the only thing that's gonna save this country from ruin."

Cobb: "We're all gonna die anyway. I'm going to work for Monsanto and make some money."

Markham: "Monsanto made Agent Orange!"

Cobb: "Yeah, and Agent Orange helped us win Vietnam."

The loser of that firefight hears about it. So does the guy who takes someone's last cigarette, or tries to change the station when Neil Young comes on. At Top of Spillway, it's a cage match of sociocomedic one-upmanship; no one has immunity from insults. But mention such discreditables as lifties ("friggin' robots") or tourists from Massachusetts ("friggin' Massholes!") and the brotherhood unites; it's the instinctual loyalty shared by men with crappy jobs.

And the job gets all the way bad. Anthony Russo, for example, finished a gun run last November and decided to slide down Boardwalk. He carried a plastic "butt sled" for such occasions. Russo hit maybe 40 miles per hour before slamming into a ditch, double-fracturing his pelvis. Some other guy, some other time, was messing with an open-air hydrant, only to have a metal ring shoot off at 160 psi, lodging in the side of his helmet.

But no living snowmaker here has had it worse than Buster, one of Sugarloaf's old foremen. Five years ago Buster was standing atop the driver's-side track of a Bombardier when his helmet, still in the vehicle, rolled off the seat and hit the control levers, sending the cat simultaneously forward and sideways. He was sucked under the seven-ton machine-backward and face down. He suffered broken ankles, broken legs, broken hips, and a crushed chest cavity. Buster switched departments.

Luckily there's also a thing known as snowmaker justice. Not 30 minutes ago, Fred Rowe was checking some guns on the Birches, when he came across a Range Rover buried to the wheel wells. Rowe tried to help, he assures us, but the driver and his pals got all mouthy, so he "radioed security, turned a gun on the Range Rover, and rode away" on his snowmobile.

Crew (variously): "Where were the Range Rover guys from?"

Rowe: "Massachusetts plates."

Crew (in unison): "Yuppie Massholes!"

It's 4 a.m. Guns 'N Roses crackles over the radio at Top of Spillway as the crew suits up for a gun run. From behind a face mask, a voice quotes the Greek inventor Archimedes: "Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I can move anything."

By 6:45, Nitro is looking good-what little I can see of it from the balcony of the old Gondola House. It's not the ice rink it was on Friday night, when I nearly died trying to hump a portable tripod. We've been sitting and yacking and waiting for hours, per MacPhee's orders. The guns below are spraying full-bore, the wind is stirring up a whiteout, and we're about to pull a late-morning gun run.

Here on the roof of Maine, I come to fully understand why these guys bother to ice their brains and sacrifice sleep. Snowmaking, you see, is the big ski-area secret, a friendly flipping-of-the-bird to the rest of the weenies on the mountain. Sure, the pay sucks. Yes, it's cold and dangerous. But you get a free pass and there's no ladder-climbing boss to cramp your style. You're not relegated to the daytime ranks of lifties, with their cool shades and Hey-Bro grunts. There are no customers in your face, no screaming kids or irate parents. While everyone else is spooning by the fire in their Ugg Boots, a bunch of smelly nocturnals are banging heavy equipment, snarfing down bologna, and having a perfectly ridiculous time.

We wipe the snow from our goggles and kick steps from gun to gun on Nitro, punching through a thin wind-blown crust and then sinking to mid-ankle-eight new inches of retail fluff. In one hand, I carry an ice ax; on my back, a small daypack with a snowboard attached.

I strap and ratchet into my battered board at the top of King's Landing-a perfect blue roller. The night crew doles out fist shakes, their tired mugs indistinguishable behind face masks and goggles.

And I am off, sliding under an Eastern sky turned pink by the rising sun. Thirty-eight fixed towers have been firing on King's Landing all night; I make giant S turns between them, blithely floating through a half-dozen manmade inches, giddy from lack of sleep. The run feels like surfing. Cut out of one little drift, drop down into the next, the formidable hydrants rumbling in my ears, spewing their million-dollar crystals. Snowmaking, I think, is the finest job on the mountain, on any mountain, with its mix of misery and payoff and out-of-sync social rhythms. Then I remember the sign on Dan Barker's wall, which forbids the deflowering of Sugarloaf's manmade snow. I feel no guilt. I am making tracks, but they'll be covered before the chairlifts start running.

Click the slideshow below to view photos of snowmaking at Sugarloaf, Maine.

d it worse than Buster, one of Sugarloaf's old foremen. Five years ago Buster was standing atop the driver's-side track of a Bombardier when his helmet, still in the vehicle, rolled off the seat and hit the control levers, sending the cat simultaneously forward and sideways. He was sucked underr the seven-ton machine-backward and face down. He suffered broken ankles, broken legs, broken hips, and a crushed chest cavity. Buster switched departments.

Luckily there's also a thing known as snowmaker justice. Not 30 minutes ago, Fred Rowe was checking some guns on the Birches, when he came across a Range Rover buried to the wheel wells. Rowe tried to help, he assures us, but the driver and his pals got all mouthy, so he "radioed security, turned a gun on the Range Rover, and rode away" on his snowmobile.

Crew (variously): "Where were the Range Rover guys from?"

Rowe: "Massachusetts plates."

Crew (in unison): "Yuppie Massholes!"

It's 4 a.m. Guns 'N Roses crackles over the radio at Top of Spillway as the crew suits up for a gun run. From behind a face mask, a voice quotes the Greek inventor Archimedes: "Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I can move anything."

By 6:45, Nitro is looking good-what little I can see of it from the balcony of the old Gondola House. It's not the ice rink it was on Friday night, when I nearly died trying to hump a portable tripod. We've been sitting and yacking and waiting for hours, per MacPhee's orders. The guns below are spraying full-bore, the wind is stirring up a whiteout, and we're about to pull a late-morning gun run.

Here on the roof of Maine, I come to fully understand why these guys bother to ice their brains and sacrifice sleep. Snowmaking, you see, is the big ski-area secret, a friendly flipping-of-the-bird to the rest of the weenies on the mountain. Sure, the pay sucks. Yes, it's cold and dangerous. But you get a free pass and there's no ladder-climbing boss to cramp your style. You're not relegated to the daytime ranks of lifties, with their cool shades and Hey-Bro grunts. There are no customers in your face, no screaming kids or irate parents. While everyone else is spooning by the fire in their Ugg Boots, a bunch of smelly nocturnals are banging heavy equipment, snarfing down bologna, and having a perfectly ridiculous time.

We wipe the snow from our goggles and kick steps from gun to gun on Nitro, punching through a thin wind-blown crust and then sinking to mid-ankle-eight new inches of retail fluff. In one hand, I carry an ice ax; on my back, a small daypack with a snowboard attached.

I strap and ratchet into my battered board at the top of King's Landing-a perfect blue roller. The night crew doles out fist shakes, their tired mugs indistinguishable behind face masks and goggles.

And I am off, sliding under an Eastern sky turned pink by the rising sun. Thirty-eight fixed towers have been firing on King's Landing all night; I make giant S turns between them, blithely floating through a half-dozen manmade inches, giddy from lack of sleep. The run feels like surfing. Cut out of one little drift, drop down into the next, the formidable hydrants rumbling in my ears, spewing their million-dollar crystals. Snowmaking, I think, is the finest job on the mountain, on any mountain, with its mix of misery and payoff and out-of-sync social rhythms. Then I remember the sign on Dan Barker's wall, which forbids the deflowering of Sugarloaf's manmade snow. I feel no guilt. I am making tracks, but they'll be covered before the chairlifts start running.

Click the slideshow below to view photos of snowmaking at Sugarloaf, Maine.

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