Night Moves

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Night Moves 1104

It's just after 5:30 p.m. and the sun has set over the summit of Sugarloaf, Maine, when Casey Bowden's radio crackles to life. "Man, they skied the hell out of this place today, didn't they?" Bowden is at the helm of a 275-horsepower Bombardier snowcat on Upper Gondi Line, a double black-diamond near the top of the Maine resort. The voice on the radio belongs to one of the other half-dozen groomers working on the mountain far below. The snow down there did get a workout today: Cold temperatures and high winds kept most of the ski traffic at midmountain and below. Up here, Bowden feels like he's working on near-virgin snow. "I'll bet 50 people didn't go down this today," he says. Nonetheless, he spends the next two hours pushing snow up this slope, trying to undo the effects of wind, gravity and sharp ski edges. Sugarloaf's lifts open at 8 a.m., so the resort's grooming team has just over 14 hours left to make these slopes perfect.

If you're a typical skier, you know groomers only by the distant flicker of headlights against the backdrop of a nighttime mountain. The folks who drive them are a nocturnal species whose work-low-paying and monotonous-is crucial to helping the rest of us enjoy our time on the slopes. Yet there's a weird glamour to being a snowcat jockey. At most resorts, it's a gig much of the rest of the workforce-from the kitchen help to the snowmaking crew-aspires to. (To understand why grooming beats snowmaking, go out on the deck of your next slopeside rental, hook up a hose and blast water in your face for 10 minutes. Then stand in the breeze for five minutes. Repeat for eight hours.) Even skiers who aren't looking for a career change are becoming more curious about how these hardy men (and, rarely, women) lay down corduroy while the rest of the mountain sleeps. Some resorts have begun quietly obliging skiers' requests to take nighttime spins with snowcat operators, and charging a few bucks for the privilege. To get a sense of the joys and pains of the profession, SKI rode shotgun during one Saturday-night shift at Sugarloaf.

Bowden, 47, is the perfect tour guide. An 18-year veteran of Sugarloaf's grooming operation, he's a shift supervisor who's turned down the chance at a higher-paying desk job for a simple reason: He loves sculpting ski slopes. Bowden is the epitome of a groomer. He enjoys working with big machines, and he's not afraid to get his hands dirty. He's a perfectionist; when lesser men might declare a slope adequate, Bowden is usually only halfway finished. And like truckers, artists and marathon runners, he's content to spend long hours alone, with his thoughts and maybe some tunes providing his only companionship. Earlier in life he worked construction and was a commercial fisherman. Today, when he's not grooming-a gig that occupies him five nights a week from December through April-he raises cattle and cuts timber on a 36-acre property near the resort.

Bowden specializes in operating Sugarloaf's winch-cat. It's outfitted with a 600-foot steel cable that the operator attaches to fixed anchors at the top of the steepest slopes, allowing the machine to groom pitches once considered ungroomable. Bowden is so knowledgeable about the art of ski-slope repair that Bombardier, the leading snowcat manufacturer, enlists him to test-drive its latest prototypes.

The first shift, which Bowden supervises, starts just after 4 p.m. in the maintenance shop beside the resort's base lodge. Beyond the break room-containing empty cases of beer anda kitchen you wouldn't dare cook in-lies the garage, where four snowcats are warming up (several more stand ready outside). By 4:30 the garage doors have opened, and we're heading toward the left side of the mountain at top speed-roughly 7 mph. It's still light out, which is actually a disadvantage: Operators say it's easier to work in the dark. "Once you get the headlights on, you can see the shadows," which give a better sense of the snow's depthnd contours, Bowden says.

On the driver's side, Bowden, who has a bushy mustache and a brown ponytail, sits in a contoured seat similar to the ones found in race cars. The cab is roomy and warm, with expansive windows to afford the driver a clear view of the terrain. To navigate, he works two levers between his legs that control the speed of the cat's two tank-like treads; when he's grooming, his right hand works a joystick covered with buttons that operate the snowcat's blade and tiller. After a few minutes of uphill climbing we pass midmountain, and he turns the machine to face down The Flume, at 43 degrees one of Sugarloaf's steepest slopes. "I'm just looking to see if this needs to be done," he says. A few feet beyond the windshield, the terrain becomes nearly vertical. Sitting in a snowcat in this position feels like being atop a roller coaster just before its plunge. For the first time since entering the cab, I notice there's no seat belt.

Flume is in good shape, so we turn around and climb higher up the mountain. At around 5 p.m., Bowden drives the machine to the edge of some woods, steps out of the cab, clambers to the front and picks up a loop of steel cable on the ground near the treeline. Grasping the end of the snowcat's winch line, he attaches it to the looped anchor, securing the machine to the mountain. "That's probably the most dangerous part of the job," he says, getting back into the cab. "You're outside, so if you ever did fall down the hill you'd have no radio." He backs the machine up and points it downhill. Above our heads, the snowcat's winch arm rotates like a slow-moving helicopter rotor as the cat turns, ensuring that the steel cable stays taut and pointed uphill no matter which direction the snowcat faces. Bowden inches the machine toward the top of another black-diamond. In a moment we're looking over the edge and about to dive downward. I ask about a seat belt. "There's one in here, and you probably should wear it," he says, rummaging around behind the seats. After a few moments he gives up. Apparently the mechanics have taken the seat belts out, since none of the drivers wear them. I sit back and brace my feet against the bottom of the windshield as we tip over the brink.

Despite its mass, the snowcat moves slowly downhill, and I quickly relax. The combination of the snowcat's treads and the steel cable give Bowden plenty of control. He works a knob to his right that controls the hydraulic tension on the winch line. "It's like the drag on a fishing line," he says. Occasionally a cat slips downhill in deep powder-every operator has a scary story about an uncontrolled slide toward the trees. But most of these tales have happy endings. Old hands talk about an incident at Snowbird, Utah, where an operator accidentally tipped a snowcat off a 25-foot cliff and then slid 600 feet down a slope. "You could see the dent where his head hit the window and broke it," says Jim Baker, Snowbird's director of mountain maintenance. The operator suffered a laceration on his forehead, but he wasn't scared out of the profession: Today he grooms at Jackson Hole, Wyo. Most insiders say grooming in the U.S. is safe. It's slightly more dangerous in Europe, where avalanches are more frequent and the terrain puts operators in more danger of driving off cliffs. As we poke downhill, Bowden says that even if we were to start sliding, he could stop our descent easily by plunging the snowcat's blade into the snow in front of us.

On the ride downhill, the snowcat's treads break up some crud, its tiller combs out rough spots, and a Teflon-coated appendage behind the tiller leaves its distinctive corduroy pattern. But the real work takes place once we reach the bottom and turn the machine uphill. "You've gotta like to blade snow to be a snowcat operator," Bowden says. Rookies rely too much on the treads and tiller to make trails more aesthetically pleasing. The real trick to good grooming, pros say, is using the blade to redistribute snow from the bottom of a slope back toward the top, and from the edges toward the center. While the blade resembles a fancy snowplow with articulating wings, Bowden operates it much more delicately, shaving just an inch or two off the top of the trail's surface, exposing softer snow below. The snow that's removed by the blade, meanwhile, flows back to be ground up by the treads and the tiller. The resulting process resembles the way plaster is troweled to create a fresh surface on a pockmarked wall.

Bowden makes pass after pass up and down the mountain, a routine familiar to anyone who's ever mowed a lawn. At one point he's tilled most of the slope and I'd declare him finished, but he makes another half-dozen slow passes. He is, by all accounts, an obsessive. The previous night he spent the entire shift making his marks on White Nitro, an expert slope off the summit. Skiers noticed. "Nitro came out great-everybody was raving about it," another groomer tells him over the radio. Bowden's response: "It needs another night of work."

The techniques Bowden uses-more or less standard at modern ski resorts-are light years ahead of the primitive grooming techniques of a generation ago. Although mountains experimented with grooming from the sport's earliest days, the field developed in earnest during the 1970s. First-generation grooming machines relied on tanklike treads to pack snow and break up crud, and later versions featured rollers and other farmlike equipment that dragged behind. By the mid-1970s, snowcats featured blades to push snow like bulldozers. The industry's last big innovation was the winch-cat, introduced in the late 1980s.

As you'd expect, grooming practices vary by region. Industry pros unanimously say groomers have a tougher task in the East, thanks to big temperature swings (leading to freeze-and-thaw cycles and lots of ice) and shorter, narrower trails. "It's definitely easier in the West," says Gary Mays, who runs mountain operations at Breckenridge, Colo. "We have a drier climate and higher elevations. That really gives us an advantage." Out on those wide-open trails, some resorts will "gang-groom," sending a dozen or more snowcats shoulder-to-shoulder over wide swaths of the mountain. "When you're doing a gang groom, you can get a couple of seasoned veterans in the front and the rear and put the rookies in the middle," says Dennis McGiboney, sales manager at Pisten Bully, which splits the U.S. snowcat market with Bombardier. "If you have seasoned operators, they prefer to work alone." Perhaps the toughest jobs face operators in Pennsylvania's Poconos. The mountains are smaller, forcing more ski traffic onto fewer acres, and many of them offer nightskiing, which restricts grooming to a single midnight shift.

After two hours of work, Bowden has declared the night's first slope finished. "If you've gotta take a leak, this is a good place for it," Bowden says, uncabling the winch, lighting a cigarette and making yellow snow near the top of a trail. Back in the cab, he cranks up the stereo. Jimi Hendrix's guitar wails. Bowden talks about NASCAR, his brief stint as a groomer out West (where operators talked like surfers, hardly ever used their blades and sometimes smoked more than cigarettes in their snowcats). We scrutinize the trail he's just finished, which looks inviting. Maybe too inviting."Ten or 15 years ago, an intermediate skier wouldn't try this trail," Bowden says. "But when it's all groomed up they'll say, 'That doesn't look that bad.'"

Much of what grooming is about, Bowden thinks, is making tough terrain accessible to less-skilled skiers. Throughout the industry, there's a sense that this may be a dangerous side effect of the increasing focus on grooming. "The safest black-diamond trails are bump trails, because they keep everybody's speed down," says Dave Mosher, vice president of mountain operations at Vermont's Sugarbush. Grooming that eliminates moguls can tempt skiers to geedistribute snow from the bottom of a slope back toward the top, and from the edges toward the center. While the blade resembles a fancy snowplow with articulating wings, Bowden operates it much more delicately, shaving just an inch or two off the top of the trail's surface, exposing softer snow below. The snow that's removed by the blade, meanwhile, flows back to be ground up by the treads and the tiller. The resulting process resembles the way plaster is troweled to create a fresh surface on a pockmarked wall.

Bowden makes pass after pass up and down the mountain, a routine familiar to anyone who's ever mowed a lawn. At one point he's tilled most of the slope and I'd declare him finished, but he makes another half-dozen slow passes. He is, by all accounts, an obsessive. The previous night he spent the entire shift making his marks on White Nitro, an expert slope off the summit. Skiers noticed. "Nitro came out great-everybody was raving about it," another groomer tells him over the radio. Bowden's response: "It needs another night of work."

The techniques Bowden uses-more or less standard at modern ski resorts-are light years ahead of the primitive grooming techniques of a generation ago. Although mountains experimented with grooming from the sport's earliest days, the field developed in earnest during the 1970s. First-generation grooming machines relied on tanklike treads to pack snow and break up crud, and later versions featured rollers and other farmlike equipment that dragged behind. By the mid-1970s, snowcats featured blades to push snow like bulldozers. The industry's last big innovation was the winch-cat, introduced in the late 1980s.

As you'd expect, grooming practices vary by region. Industry pros unanimously say groomers have a tougher task in the East, thanks to big temperature swings (leading to freeze-and-thaw cycles and lots of ice) and shorter, narrower trails. "It's definitely easier in the West," says Gary Mays, who runs mountain operations at Breckenridge, Colo. "We have a drier climate and higher elevations. That really gives us an advantage." Out on those wide-open trails, some resorts will "gang-groom," sending a dozen or more snowcats shoulder-to-shoulder over wide swaths of the mountain. "When you're doing a gang groom, you can get a couple of seasoned veterans in the front and the rear and put the rookies in the middle," says Dennis McGiboney, sales manager at Pisten Bully, which splits the U.S. snowcat market with Bombardier. "If you have seasoned operators, they prefer to work alone." Perhaps the toughest jobs face operators in Pennsylvania's Poconos. The mountains are smaller, forcing more ski traffic onto fewer acres, and many of them offer nightskiing, which restricts grooming to a single midnight shift.

After two hours of work, Bowden has declared the night's first slope finished. "If you've gotta take a leak, this is a good place for it," Bowden says, uncabling the winch, lighting a cigarette and making yellow snow near the top of a trail. Back in the cab, he cranks up the stereo. Jimi Hendrix's guitar wails. Bowden talks about NASCAR, his brief stint as a groomer out West (where operators talked like surfers, hardly ever used their blades and sometimes smoked more than cigarettes in their snowcats). We scrutinize the trail he's just finished, which looks inviting. Maybe too inviting."Ten or 15 years ago, an intermediate skier wouldn't try this trail," Bowden says. "But when it's all groomed up they'll say, 'That doesn't look that bad.'"

Much of what grooming is about, Bowden thinks, is making tough terrain accessible to less-skilled skiers. Throughout the industry, there's a sense that this may be a dangerous side effect of the increasing focus on grooming. "The safest black-diamond trails are bump trails, because they keep everybody's speed down," says Dave Mosher, vice president of mountain operations at Vermont's Sugarbush. Grooming that eliminates moguls can tempt skiers to get in over their heads. "It's like dangling a carrot in front of a rabbit," Mosher says. "They high-speed cruise down a double black-diamond, and people end up in the woods." When accidents happen, they can weigh heavily on groomers' minds, Bowden says. "A couple of years ago, a guy got killed on a hill I'd just groomed. You wonder, 'Was it something I did? Did I leave a rut?'" As far as he knows, grooming has never been blamed for an accident at Sugarloaf.

Behind us, lights spread out from the base lodge and intoa sprawling constellation of slopeside condos. Above us the sky is remarkably clear. Bowden's shift is nearing its midpoint, but he won't take a lunch break-it takes too long to drive the snowcat down to the maintenance shop, he says. At some point, he'll unwrap a sandwich in his cab. He's skiing less these days than he used to, and at slightly less than $13 an hour for seasonal work (plus season passes for his family), Bowden will never get rich doing this. As in any workplace, his colleagues often find things to complain about. "You could be painting naked women for a living and still find something not to like about it," he says philosophically. "There was a spell about six or seven years ago when I thought I'd had enough. But I like pushing snow." The temperature has dropped to around zero. His radio crackles. "The snow is definitely hardening up," comes a voice from below. "It's like styrofoam about now." But up here, Bowden has an eight-ton machine and four more hours to turn crud into packed powder. "There's nothing I like better than makinga trail perfect," he says. And for that, we should all be grateful.



Bombardier BR 350

Horsepower: 345 hp.

Torque: 1,100 lbs./ft.

Weight: 11,552 lbs.

Turning radius: 0 ft.

Top speed: 11.5 mph

MSRP: $220,000

NOVEMBER 2004

o get in over their heads. "It's like dangling a carrot in front of a rabbit," Mosher says. "They high-speed cruise down a double black-diamond, and people end up in the woods." When accidents happen, they can weigh heavily on groomers' minds, Bowden says. "A couple of years ago, a guy got killed on a hill I'd just groomed. You wonder, 'Was it something I did? Did I leave a rut?'" As far as he knows, grooming has never been blamed for an accident at Sugarloaf.

Behind us, lights spread out from the base lodge and intoa sprawling constellation of slopeside condos. Above us the sky is remarkably clear. Bowden's shift is nearing its midpoint, but he won't take a lunch break-it takes too long to drive the snowcat down to the maintenance shop, he says. At some point, he'll unwrap a sandwich in his cab. He's skiing less these days than he used to, and at slightly less than $13 an hour for seasonal work (plus season passes for his family), Bowden will never get rich doing this. As in any workplace, his colleagues often find things to complain about. "You could be painting naked women for a living and still find something not to like about it," he says philosophically. "There was a spell about six or seven years ago when I thought I'd had enough. But I like pushing snow." The temperature has dropped to around zero. His radio crackles. "The snow is definitely hardening up," comes a voice from below. "It's like styrofoam about now." But up here, Bowden has an eight-ton machine and four more hours to turn crud into packed powder. "There's nothing I like better than makinga trail perfect," he says. And for that, we should all be grateful.



Bombardier BR 350

Horsepower: 345 hp.

Torque: 1,100 lbs./ft.

Weight: 11,552 lbs.

Turning radius: 0 ft.

Top speed: 11.5 mph

MSRP: $220,000

NOVEMBER 2004

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