VAIL, Colorado - They call it "The Beast."
The name in part comes from the way this snowcat looks, but the real meaning is in this machine's capabilities.
Vail Mountain grooming crew foreman Troy Blumenstein said The Beast, Vail Mountain's most high-tech snowcat, can do a lot more work than an average cat.
"It would take six normal cats to do the same work as these two cats," Blumenstein said. "Thank God we work here - we have new machines."
Vail Resorts, and Vail Mountain specifically, doesn't skimp on its grooming, which includes everything from leveling out runs to pushing large quantities of snow back uphill after skiers and snowboarders have pushed it downhill all day.
And in a season that has lacked much natural snow in its first month or so, grooming becomes a crucial part of the overall mountain operation.
Blumenstein and fellow crew foreman Travis Wenzel have both been Vail Mountain snowcat drivers for eight seasons. They are some of the few guys that operate Vail Mountain's two Beasts, which the resort bought last year at an estimated cost of about $500,000 each.
The Beasts are made by Prinoth and they have more than 40 percent more groomed surface and snow pushing power.
These cats are just that - beasts. They have bigger engines and blades than other snowcats with an engine like that of a semi truck - more than 500 horsepower.
Wenzel loves driving it because it's capable of doing so much, and snow maintenance is what Wenzel is so passionate about, so The Beast is simply perfect.
"My main focus for this machine is maintenance," he said. "They produce more - it helps us groom large areas."
The machine is similar to the other snowcats, but "it's just a larger platform," Wenzel said.
"When I think of slope maintenance, it's leveling out a run and pushing snow back uphill," Wenzel said. "I really like to push snow with this machine, I think it's just amazing for pushing snow."
That's what The Beast does best - slope maintenance. But Vail Mountain can't put just any cat driver in The Beast and expect the same kind of work that Blumenstein and Wenzel can produce. The job is highly skilled, and experience is key.
"These things are meant for somebody's who's been here a while," Wenzel said. "They're not going to put an inexperienced operator in this machine - they're meant for production, they have a real specific purpose."
It takes a few years for a cat driver to graduate to The Beast. While some Vail Mountain cat drivers have been there as long as Wenzel and Blumenstein - some drivers have a 20-year history at Vail - about 30 percent of the cat crew is new each season, Wenzel said.
Blumenstein can remember being a new guy, and he can understand why some guys might not come back.
"My first three years were scary," Blumenstein said. "It's like, 'Where am I?' If you're going uphill, you don't see signs so you're like, 'All right, am I on the right track?'"
And in a blizzard, cat drivers are just guessing where they're going, Blumenstein said.
"We don't stop because it's snowing - it's just 'keep on going,'" he said.
With The Beasts, the guys can do a lot more, too. Blumenstein said the two machines could take on all the grooming at Mid-Vail in one shift - an impressive feat, but Wenzel adds that it's all about the operators of the machines in order to get a perfect product.
"It's not easy," Wenzel said. "The quality of the corduroy is totally dependent on your blading, how fast you're going, the conditions - you have to know the mountain to know what's going to happen."
These guys live for it, though. For Wenzel, being up on the mountain at night when nobody else is around is the best job in the world.
"I think the job is outrageously satisfying," Wenzel said. "I love being up here - this is always what I wanted to do."
Wenzel said he's been running machinery since he was a little kid. Anything he could get his hands on, he would.
"I can't think of anything more interesting than being up here and moving snow around, because the product changes every day - it's a whole new place every day," Wenzel said.
As Wenzel drives "The Beast" up the ridge-line past Chair 2, the sun sets behind Mount of the Holy Cross and the sky glows bright orange. It's a view most people don't get to see around here - at least not from the top of the mountain.
"I love being up here at night," Wenzel said. "Like right now, seeing the orange in the sky and being up here in the alpine environment is enough for me."
Community Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.