From the Eyes of a Snowcat Operator

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(Photo by Brent Uberty)
(Photo by Brent Uberty)
(Photo by Brent Uberty)

As the day goes by, skiers and snowboarders go for run after run, creating ruts and shaving off layers of snow. Yet every morning the trails are beautifully groomed with a fresh corduroy pattern, the runs are smooth, and there are no tracks. This is the magic of Park City Mountain Resort’s snowcat operators.

The Fleet Grooming Department includes 26 employees and 12 snowcat machines that drive over the slopes, creating smoother conditions. The task involves 50 to 55 runs over the area per night before the resort opens in the morning.

Every afternoon around 4 p.m., the first crew meets at the base of the mountain and loads into SUVs to head about halfway up the mountain. This swing shift has their afternoon meeting with Travis Ambrose, the grooming manager, who talks about problem areas, the game plan for the night, and any updates on snowcat issues. Then the crew saddles up and hits the slopes.

I went for a ride-along with Wesley Williams, one of the senior groomers, in a PistenBully 400. Wesley and I loaded up and started the engine. With the click of a button, the snowcat vehicle was fully operational and we headed out. The snow had just started to fall, and the darkness of the mountain lingered ahead of us. Wesley started grooming the trail, and as we began to talk, it became clear to me that this was no easy task. With so many different things going on at once, you have to be constantly aware.

As I rode along I was enamored by the transformation of each run. One sweep by the snowcat would turn an iced-over slope into a beautifully smooth area. As we traveled about the mountain Williams talked about some of the ins and outs of driving a snowcat at Park City Mountain Resort. He said he enjoys his job.

“It’s such a privilege to have [the snowcat] in your control,” he said. “It is such a unique machine.”

Every button had such a big impact in the grand scheme of things.

“What looks like a few inches up here in the cat could be feet when you’re on the ground,” he added.

There really is an art to what snowcat operators do. His five tips for driving the machine are: 1) pay close attention, 2) be quick with the controls, 3) know the mountain, 4) have confidence, and 5) try new things.

As the night continued, I watched Williams create different patterns to cover his tracks, push out piles of snow to make it comfortable for patrons, and operate the giant machine flawlessly. He loves the mountain because it is “a silent beauty.”

Wesley said the difference in consistency between natural snow and man-made snow is often what gets operators in trouble. Natural snow is usually light and easy to push around; man-made snow is often heavy, like “mashed potatoes.”

We pulled into the yard and I hopped out. Williams disappeared into the snowy evening with nothing but the sound of the diesel engine of the snowcat standing out from the dark night. Once he turned the corner I sat in the yard for a few minutes just watching the lights scattered across the mountain.

The next morning, I headed back to the shop to talk with Ambrose and dive deeper into the department as a whole. He gave me a rundown of his crew and their tasks, which range from snowmaking to snowcat operating. The swing shift, which I sat in on, starts at 4 p.m. and goes to 12:30 a.m., and the graveyard shift starts at 12:30 a.m. and goes until 9:30 a.m. Ambrose said his day starts at 6:30 a.m. with the graveyard crew coming in and ends at 5 p.m. with the swing shift going out. But he doesn’t seem to mind the long hours.

“I’m not sitting in a cubicle for eight hours a day,” he joked.

Next time I go skiing I will appreciate the smooth runs a lot more than I did before. The grooming crew really does make magic happen every night of the ski/snowboard season.

b.uberty@chronicle.utah.edu

@brentuberty

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