Behind the Scenes: Snowgrooming
Behind the Scenes: When the Cats Come Out at Night, It’s Snow Grooming Time
Each night, after everyone else has left the mountain, snow groomers load into their grooming machines, also called snow cats, and begin knocking down moguls and smoothing roughed up snow. Grooming is a nocturnal profession and crews often work two overnight shifts from 5:00 p.m. to 8:30 a.m.
Their goal? To transform the mountain by morning, replacing “used” snow with smooth pristine “corduroy” on runs designated as “groomed.” The word corduroy was coined because the groomed snow gives the appearance of the texture of the fabric.
Snow Grooming 101
At it’s most basic, snow grooming is how resorts and ski areas prepare snow so that their guests can have the best possible skiing and riding experience.
As Charles Blier, Prinoth Vice-President of Sales for North America explains “Grooming is all about the last six inches of snow surface — what it looks like and feels like, first thing in the morning.
Using large tractors, equipped with blades on the front and tillers on the back, snow cat operators spend each night rearranging, smoothing and reforming this top six inches of snow.
With each pass over the snow, the front blade mows down moguls, churns up crud, and grinds the snow, while the rear tiller erases the snowcat tracks, smoothing everything out and leaving a white carpet of lightly lined snow, that looks like corduroy fabric (hence, the name).
In addition to keeping skiers and riders happy, grooming also helps ski resorts keep their snow in the best condition possible.
Ski areas are subject to the whims of Mother Nature.
At one extreme, snow falls and everyone enjoys a powder day.
At the other extreme, there’s a shortage of natural snowfall and groomers have to incorporate manmade snow into the compacted surface.
Other natural factors, such as temperature, wind and sunlight can also change up how the grooming crew works.
Most will probably tell you that good grooming is an art.
“We want a perfect product when we groom. We train our operators to make the best skiing experience, which also makes it safer,” notes Rip Collins, a long-time snow groomer at Alta (UT).
“Every time I groom a path, I strive to make the corduroy pristine. Every time we groom, the snow cats and operators create a blank canvas for skiers to lay tracks on,” he says.
In addition to laying down perfect corduroy, snow cats are also used to build freestyle terrain parks, skier and snowboard cross courses and Terrain Based Learning beginner areas.
Terrain Based Learning is a learn-to ski and snowboard program developed bySNOW Operating in partnership with Prinoth and 28 resorts across the United States.
The goal of Terrain Based Learning is to make learning to ski and snowboard easier and more natural.
Using snow cats, resorts build mini-slopes, half pipes, rollers, banked turns and other small features for beginners. As beginners slide gently downhill on these features they learn to balance and turn. As the terrain moves gently uphill, they learn to stop naturally.
Vermont’s Killington Resort has a large Terrain Based Learning program, with two dedicated teaching areas. Paul Buhler, a Killington groomer and ski instructor, grooms these areas and has learned what works best at Killington.
“At Killington, many of our features are built below grade. For example, our banked “S” turns are carved into the trail. Other resorts build these above grade. It really depends upon each resort’s topography, wind, water, access to snowmaking and the snow cats available to do the best job.”
Grooming for World Cup Races and the Olympics
It’s exciting to watch a race and course preparation is another specialized type of snow grooming.
World Cup and Olympic race ski courses need to be frozen and fast. If you watch the Olympics you will see this yourself.
The process starts at the beginning of the season with snowmaking. Then, through a process of tilling, grooming and reblading, groomers homogenize the snow into a solid, hard race surface.
Downhill race courses also are steep so winch cats are used for grooming steep pitches.
A winch cat is a snowcat mounted with a cable that extends from the cat to anchors on the ski run. The cable holds the weight of the snowcat as it travels down the hill and when the cat gets to the bottom of the pitch it turns around and the cable helps pull it back up the hill.
Winch cats can be used to groom any steep run and also to move snow uphill when necessary. Because winch cats harness the power of the winch and cable, they are more energy efficient than traditional snow groomers, according to Blier.
Operating a winch cat is a specialized skill because the cable adds an extra component to the grooming.
What it Takes to Be a Snow Cat Operator
Snow grooming takes a lot of skill and developing this skill takes time on the job.
Novice drivers basically begin as apprentices, working with experienced operators and taking turns controlling the groomer until they are ready for their own machine.
Like every job, there are tradeoffs and rewards.
Operators also have to stay alert while working through the night and to accept responsibility for safety, both for themselves and other groomers. They are also responsible for providing the best snow possible, every day of the ski season.
As for the rewards, here are three: Groomers get to drive a big, fascinating machine. They know that skiers and snowboarders appreciate and enjoy their work. And, since they work all night, they’ve got at least some time each day to ski.
No wonder Rip Collins has been at it for over 30 years.