Beaver Creek, Behind-the-Scenes |

Beaver Creek, Behind-the-Scenes

Lauren Glendenning
special to the Vail TrailNic Berg, a snowcat operator from Michigan, takes a break from driving to show the people on last month's Beaver Creek behind-the-scenes tour the mountain's snowcat fleet.

There’s no such thing as an off-season at Beaver Creek Mountain. The people behind-the-scenes who keep the mountain running joke that they have about a 15-minute break between winter and summer.

But skiers and riders don’t get to see the amount of upkeep that mountains require. There are trees, snow, restaurants and ski lifts ” how much manpower could it possibly take?

A recent tour of the mountain, sponsored by the Vail Symposium, proves that a ski resort needs more than just a little help from Mother Nature to make guests happy.

Beaver Creek Mountain’s 1,805 acres of terrain need constant attention. Sure, Mother Nature takes care of a lot by dumping an average of 310 inches of snow each season, but the slopes need a little love from the mountain crews that move, make and groom the snow.

In the early season, some of the work being done on the mountain is obvious. Snowmakers blow snow onto closed runs, sending loud noises through the otherwise quiet slopes. Machines that hook up to the mountain’s roughly 1,600 snowmaking hydrants line the slopes, but behind the scenes, men and women overseeing the water pipes and pump houses are the brains behind the snow. It really is manmade, and it’s not an easy operation.

“We want to make as much snow as possible, but we have to worry about the guys,” says Steve Fellman, a snowmaker at Beaver Creek.

The guys he’s talking about are working 12 hours at a time to make snow on the mountain 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The crew is outside in the middle of night, in sometimes brutally cold temperatures, getting wet as they haul heavy equipment around. Fellman says the crews work in pairs because they have to keep an eye on each other for signs of hypothermia and frostbite.

“If you’re out when snowmaking is going on and you think it’s cold skiing, try being out there soaked, like you’re a brick of ice,” he says. “It’s not the prettiest scene.”

The top priority for snowmakers each year is getting the downhill course ready for the Birds of Prey World Cup races in late November. Snowmaking is a science that requires very specific temperatures in order for it to work. As soon as the conditions are perfect, at 26.5 degrees, it’s go time.

“We have to get that (downhill course) open. That is our big push,” Fellman says.

Getting water up to the course isn’t easy, either. Water comes out of Trapper’s Reservoir ” Beaver Creek Mountain’s private reservoir ” through water pipes that bring it over to the main mountain. From there it passes through three other pump houses that push the water up to the very top of the course.

Snowmakers on the downhill course aren’t rookies. Since it’s a racecourse, the snow has to walk a fine line between slick and icy, Fellman says.

“The downhill course is the scariest spot to make snow on Beaver Creek Mountain,” Fellman says. “The snow we make for the public is fresh powder compared to what we put on the downhill course.”

This season, a dry early season made snowmaking for the downhill course much harder than usual. John Neufield, slope maintenance manager at the mountain, says the crews work around the clock to get eight days of work done in about three.

And once the snow is made, snowcat crews still have to come in and groom it, tear it up again, water it and then smooth it out again.

“It was a large effort this year,” Neufield says.

So who does this kind of work? It’s mostly men, and aside from the ones who have been loyal employees for several years, finding the right guys for the job can be tough, Fellman says.

Snowmakers start out at about $9.75 an hour, so it’s no wonder people aren’t lining up to fill out applications, said one woman on the Vail Symposium’s recent tour of the mountain.

Neufield says the resort has had a tough time finding employees during the last few years, like most employers in the valley. As a result, he has to be less selective.

“We do need good people with some good common sense,” he says. “But, you know, if you’ve got a warm heart beat and can fog up a pair of goggles, you’re good to go.”

Beaver Creek has a fleet of 39 snowcats ” up from the six it started out with back in the 1980s, says George Pena, the manager of the mountain’s mechanic shop. The mountain doesn’t contract out any maintenance work on the snowcats, lifts, snowmobiles or cars.

That means Pena’s shop, which has 14 employees, most of whom are mechanics, is constantly busy.

The two new toys everyone in the shop is excited about are the PistenBully 600’s the mountain just bought. They’re 490-horsepower snowcats with 1,600 foot-pounds of torque and 12.8-liter Mercedes Benz engines. They’re beasts, but surprisingly the cats’ fuel consumption isn’t bad, Pena says.

Energy efficiency, and a “lower carbon footprint,” is something Pena, Neufield and Fellman all mentioned several times each during the tour.

Pena says he makes decisions about what kinds of equipment to use or what kinds of modifications to make with energy constantly in mind. He has a lot of goals to meet for the life of the snowcats and their fuel consumption.

“We want to be ahead of the game,” Pena says.

Pena and the mechanics in the shop work on the cats so often that they figure out ways to make them better, such as design changes that would add to the lifetime of certain parts or prevent them from breaking so easily. Pena talks to the manufacturers about the technology demands the cats either are or aren’t meeting, especially about fuel and energy, he says.

Over on the other side of Pena’s shop is the lift maintenance area, a huge garage packed with tools, parts and grease. There are about 10 to 12 mechanics that work in lift maintenance, taking care of everything electrical and mechanical on the chair lifts.

“We spend all winter getting ready for summer and all summer getting ready for winter,” says Carl Eaton, lift maintenance manager. “That’s kind of how it goes around here.”

Ski lifts need replacement parts all the time, and in the shop the mechanics and technicians are always looking for wear and tear. In a small room, a machine helps the crew see small damages to parts, such as tiny cracks in “critical components” of the chair lifts, Eaton says.

It’s called magnetic particle testing. They spray mineral oil onto a part and magnetic particles stick to cracks and glow in the dark.

“We call this the crack house, cause we’re looking for cracks,” he jokes.

Lift accidents aren’t common, says Phil Patterson, the other lift maintenance manager. The reason is because of the scrutiny the mechanics and the state’s Tramway board, which imposes regulations and does inspections, put on them.

“There are so many safeties and redundancies on the lifts now, that (accidents) are so rare,” Eaton says.

So when the lift stops for a couple of minutes, don’t worry, Patterson says. However, if you’re still standing in line and you see more than two or three maintenance men arrive on snowmobiles, it could take a while to get it running again, “so you might want to go somewhere else,” he says.

Upstairs from the shop is lift dispatch. Computer screens with pictures of each chair lift show when a lift isn’t running. The computer shows what kind of stop it is, whether intentional or because of a mechanical failure, and dispatchers make whatever calls they need in order to get it running again.

When a lift stops for longer than 10 minutes, the office is required to log it and report it to the state Tramway board. The response time to stops is so important, especially because of the number of people that are on chairlifts every hour, Patterson says.

Beaver Creek alone transports about 26,000 skiers per hour on its chairlifts. Chair six alone carries about 2,800 people an hour.

“We have the ability in the ski lift industry to transport more people than the airline industry,” Patterson says. “And I must say that we do it in a safer manner than the airline industry.”

The ski patrol’s headquarters are at the top of the Cinch Express lift. That’s where calls come in when there’s a skier down or when the mechanics can’t fix a lift in time and it needs evacuation. Patrollers have medical, safety, evacuation and avalanche training so they can respond to all kinds of on-mountain scenarios.

“When you have 10- to- 11,000 people on a busy weekend all participating in a risk sport, stuff’s going to happen, and it does on occasion,” Coley says.

The patrol tries to always work within the “golden hour,” he says. They want to get a patient off the hill and into a hospital within an hour.

“We do a good job,” Coley says. “I’m not saying that cause I’m biased, but we have a reputation as a good patrol and we work hard at it and we do heaps of training.”

Accidents with minor injuries are also logged and patrollers help investigate and collect statements from witnesses. Other duties include marking runs with signs for dangerous terrain, avalanche control work to prevent in-bounds slides, and constant safety enforcement.

They want to make sure skiers and riders on the mountain aren’t reckless or breaking any laws, such as using drugs or skiing while intoxicated. They love it when skiers work with them by calling in reports of any dangers on the hill, he says.

About a month ago the ski patrol got a call about a drunk man on the mountain. The ski patrol found him and had a sheriff come and take him away in handcuffs.

“We don’t tolerate behavior,” Coley says.

Not everything about a patroller’s job is grim, though. While they do help hurt or sick skiers, respond to emergencies and deal with drunk people, overall the job is a lot of fun, Coley says. Patrollers ski a lot, meet new people every day and generally enjoy the work they do, he says.

“I’d never say anything like I’d pay (Beaver Creek) to let me do the job, but I love it,” Coley says. “We can all say we’ve participated in saving people’s lives.”

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