Club Colorado

A night with Eldora’s snow groomers

by Guest on Mar.15, 2012, under Colorado Skiing

Groomers: Tilling resort snow is like a work of art

Written by Jenn Fields, this story originally ran in the Daily Camera

In the summer, Tom Anderson tills the earth at his farm in Longmont. In the winter, he tills the snow on Eldora Mountain Resort’s slopes.

Wednesday, at about 10 p.m., another member of the snow-grooming crew started up a snowcat outside of a barely hidden garage just off Eldora’s slopes. (The snowcats have to sit outside to chill before they can take off to groom — warmer metal isn’t good for the snow.)

Anderson said Eldora bought two new snowcats two years ago, but paused to appreciate that engine’s rumble: “It’s one of my favorite sounds, that ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh,” he said.
Wednesday night, Anderson was on the second shift of groomers. Two others had already been out there for a few hours following the “flight plan” from the snow surfaces manager — which tells them what to groom every night. He typically arrives at about 9:30 p.m. to start his grooming shift at 10 p.m. Then, he and another guy in a snowcat skim the little bumps off the top of the snow and lay a track of cord down behind the snowcat’s tiller. The two groom right up until the resort opens at 9 a.m.

CAMERA/MARK LEFFINGWELL

CAMERA/MARK LEFFINGWELL

In one night, cover most of the mountain, Anderson said. While Anderson headed up the alpine slopes Wednesday, Brian Bradley, of Boulder, headed out of the garage to groom the cross-country trails on a small snowcat. He said seeing the sunrise makes working through the night worthwhile. In fact, all of the groomers working that evening commented on the Eldora sunrise, with several of them boasting rose- and orange-tinged sunrises on their iPhones.
Unfortunately, the amazing sunrises don’t change the fact that this winter night job has a drastic effect on his social life, Bradley said.“I gotta call my friends at the end of April and see if they want to hang out,” Bradley said, laughing. “‘Hey, you remember me?’”
When Anderson climbs into the cab and behind the wheel — well, there’s no wheel, he’s behind the sticks that operate the cat and the tiller behind it — he never feels lonely, he said. For him, this job is art.“My whole philosophy is, I do it for the art, and if you put yourself in the position of the artist, that takes the work and the money out of it, because you can’t do it for the money, either,” he said, with a laugh. “But if I look at it as, I’m given the mountain as my canvass for the night, and my snowcat as my tool to perform the art, then all of a sudden you become this machine artist instead of just a guy driving a snowcat.”
“If you believe in an artistic touch, the artistic touch I put into the snow at night is what the skiers will feel the next day.”

Anderson and the other groomers know Eldora like the backs of their hands.

“Jolly Jug is 15 cats wide,” Anderson recited. “Corona is 26. Klondike is only six.”

This intimate knowledge of the slopes is helpful for efficiency, but also because they’re out there in whiteouts, 80 mile-per-hour winds and even avalanches (Anderson has been in three).

Snowmaking operations supervisor Josh Zeigler, who grooms and makes snow — “Our job is to go out at 2 a.m. and stand around in a blizzard of our own making,” he said — even knows when the mountain has sufficient snow for it to last until the end of the season.“We’ve been making snow for a long time here, so we know about how much we need to get through the rest of the season,” Zeigler said. (It’s about 3 to 4 feet.)

The groomers also know the sights well. That Wednesday night, a light fog on the mountain masked their frequent views of the Front Range lights from the top of the La Belle run, which Anderson was grooming early for the CU Ski Team’s practice there the next morning.

Anderson’s other nighttime views include animals from mice to foxes to coyotes — but he’s never seen a mountain lion. They’re too clever, he said. The groomers only see their tracks, not the animals themselves.”

“Brian, over on Nordic, will see more than us, because there are two moose over there,” Anderson added.

Learning to groom the slopes takes “practice, practice, practice,” Anderson said. They only use the plow on the front of the snowcat to scrape little bumps off the slopes. They only dip the till deep enough to lay the cord and cover the cat tracks. They keep the cats moving constantly, because if they don’t, the machine’s weight will dig into the snow and tear it up. For this reason, every time they turn around, they execute a “K” turn to avoid churning the snow.

If it’s going to snow at night, they’ll groom the steep runs first so “the powder’s where the powder guys like it, and then we end up with the fresh-groomed stuff in the morning where the kids, the beginners don’t have to work their way through the powder,” Anderson said.

At the end of his day — when the skiers and snowboarders are starting theirs — Anderson gets a lot of satisfaction looking back on perfect brushstrokes coming straight down the groomed runs.

But the nighttime’s pretty great, too.

“I feel blessed,” he said as he navigated the cat down the slope, gravity pulling the passengers forward. “I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

CAMERA/MARK LEFFINGWELL

CAMERA/MARK LEFFINGWELL

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