VAIL — When you’re eating and drinking at the top of Vail Mountain during Friday’s Mountaintop Picnic, take a moment to raise a glass and toast the Vail snowcat crew that built the snow fort in which you’re standing.
Foreman Troy Blumenstein, started building it in December. They finished earlier this week, and they have a great time doing it.
“We know it’s coming, so we can start working on it early,” Blumenstein said.
The same is true for the American Ski Classic and other events around Vail and Beaver Creek.
Through it all, the grooming goes on.
“You never see a dent in the groomed acreage,” Blumenstein said. “That’s one of the things people pay for when they come to Vail. It’s an important part of the guest experience.”
Rocks, then roll
Blumenstein does most of it, pushing and piling huge mounds of snow. He takes it all the way down to the rocks, creating a snow platform about 10 feet deep.
“Every year it’s different because every year the snow is different,” he said.
It’s the difference between feast and famine.
A few years ago Vail got 500 inches of snow. It was an awesome year for skiers, but a challenge of riches for him. That’s a lot of snow to move around.
“It takes longer where there’s a lot of snow,” he explained.
When snowfall is below normal, it’s bad for skiing but easier for Blumenstein — sort of. He still builds the snow fort, but one year had to move it down the mountain a few yards — which did not make it a Just-shy-of-the-mountaintop-picnic, thank you very much.
Of course a snow fort has to have walls, and this one does. One year there was so much snow the walls were 20 feet high. It turned out to be an aesthetic issue. While the walls were magnificent, being 20 feet high obscured the mountaintoppers’ view of the Gore Range on one side and the Sawatch on the other.
People fussed a little.
So, most years the walls are six or eight feet high. It’s still one of the world’s largest snow forts, and people can see everything they want to — sort of like riding around in a convertible.
The platform has to be about 10 feet high to make it flat.
Will Brown taught Blumenstein. Brown built it for years, and says it was being built long before his time. Over the years the instructions became pretty simple: “Go build the Taste of Vail deck.”
Brown’s predecessors taught him; he taught Blumenstein. Blumenstein is teaching others. And so it goes.
Over the years both the event and the pad got bigger.
Blumenstein’s professional progression is pretty typical. His first year he did nothing but groom trails, which was fine. His second he had a few small projects to do. By the third year he was entrusted to bigger projects and better machines.
He’s been at this 10 years and has built the Mountaintop Picnic snow fort for seven years.
In lean snow years, almost all the available snow goes into the deck. You can’t be very extravagant. In big years, they can be more creative.
“It’s all about snow management,” Brown said.
The walls will surround three sides. They leave the north open for two reasons. That’s the loading dock, plus it leaves a great view of the Gore.
“When you step off the cat you should get a great look at the Gore Range,” Brown said.
Blumenstein drives the Beast, built by Prinoth, a snowcat manufacturing company. It’s 23-feet wide, churns about 500 horsepower and weighs 26,000 pounds. It costs more than your house, which explains why they won’t let us drive them.
Ask as artfully as you can, but they won’t let you drive. In fact, new hires in Vail’s grooming department have to ride shotgun for 40 hours before they get to handle the controls.
They learn to blade, they learn to till, they learn to leave that amazing corduroy that Vail’s guests have come to know and love.
Veteran drivers can take one look at a groomer’s work and tell in seconds if it’s done correctly. If it’s not, it’s probably a rookie and they’ll probably get another shot at brilliance on that trail.
Friday will see hundreds of happy, laughing people enjoying themselves and their surroundings for a few hours at the Mountaintop Picnic.
When it’s done they push the walls down.
“It’s a safety issue,” Brown said diplomatically.
Which is a way of saying that if they don’t push the walls down, someone will get the idea that they’re Superman and can leap tall snow forts in a single bound. They can’t, of course, but lawyers are lawyers and it’s just less trouble to knock down the walls and roll them flat with a snowcat.
In the meantime, raise a toast Friday — and every other day — to your friendly neighborhood snowcat drivers.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or email@example.com.