Grooming The Slot
When most of the town is heading off to apres the real work that keeps the mountain in good condition is just beginning. With skier numbers on Vail Mountain often exceeding 15,000 a day, the snow is exposed to a tremendous amount of pressure. This makes for hard, fast and often icy conditions. Despite the 5,000 plus acres of skiable terrain, a big effort is made to ensure the mountain remains enjoyable for skiers of all levels. This is where the grooming comes in.
Everybody loves the feeling of carving down a fresh, untracked groomer. It brings out the selfish nature in all of us. Vail Resorts has implemented a “First Tracks” program which allows members early lift access in an effort to exploit the corduroy commodity.
Four Bombardier BR 2000 winch cats take care of the steep stuff on Vail Mountain. Each winch cat grooms around 25-50 acres per 10 hour shift. Vail Mountain uses Winch Cats to groom Riva, The Slot, Gandy Dancer and Blue Ox to name a few. Each of these runs gets groomed every week.
I had the opportunity to ride with winch cat operator Jake Higbie on his Tuesday night shift. Vail employs four winch cat operators on the night shift. Jake has been operating cats since high school -12 years ago. He remembers riding with his father as a young kid grooming Aspen Mountain and was hooked from the start.
We left the Catbox in Lionshead around 4:30, a late start for Jake. The delay was caused by some last minute maintainence needed on the winch cat – it was low on oil.
Our route began up Simba then across Eagle’s Nest Ridge to Windows Road. The sunset burned orange and purple over the sharp shouldered Gore range as a few shadowed and lost looking skiers made toward the bottom.
Tonight Jake was headed out to the Slot. Four new anchors have been installed on the Slot and this is Jake’s first time grooming it with the new anchors. The anchors, or picks as they are also known, were installed to allow for safer and more convenient operation of the winch cats and to minimize the use of trees as anchors. Trees may be subjected to harm or trauma when used to aid winch cat operation. Vail Resorts plans on eliminating the use of trees completely in the near future.
When the sun sets the mountain becomes the prowling ground of the cats. As Jake dropped the rope closure to the run and began setting out the mandatory caution signs a group of snowmobiles came twining down Sleepytime out of China Bowl in a string of cascading headlights.
Jake connects the cable to one of the new picks and we head down the Slot, but not before putting up another sign and making the mandatory 1067-a heads up to the town and mountain operations via radio to inform everyone the Slot is closed to traffic and a winch cat is in operation.
The pitch of the slope becomes apparent as the cat makes it descent. The snow is well packed and bumped out as we begin dozing our way down. We stick to the fall line and as we approach the runout the low cable alarm goes off-a sound we will become accustomed to as the night goes on.
Jake works the slope, dozing up hill and tilling down. A conscious effort must be made to alternate turns, right at the bottom, left at the top, to keep the cable from twisting causing a bad wrap which can lead to a broken cable. When the cable breaks things get ugly fast. Another cat must be called in to retrieve the broken cable. The danger of this is increased due to the weight of the cable as it dangles down the slope. If the cable gets free of the pick look out.
Anyone who has ever taken a ride in a snow cat dreams of operating one. I’m no different. Steering is controlled by two levers on the left hand of the operator just off the arm rest. It’s basically the same concept behind a skid loader for anyone who’s familiar with a bobcat or similar piece of equipment. One foot pedal controls the engine throttle. Almost all other operation happens from a joystick. Hold the black button down and move the stick to adjust the blade. The tiller is raised and lowered via the yellow button-you get the basic idea. The entire machine is incredibly responsive and amazingly agile for such a large piece of equipment.
Operating a snow cat is not a financially lucrative profession, nonetheless, not without a sense of pride. This is real work. A cat operator sits in the cab on steep faces in an awkward position through the dark hours of the night taking snow from the high spots and giving to the low. It is the serenity of the mountain and the solitude of the night that makes the night cat operators relationship with the mountain unique. Like all relationships, sacrifices must be made. But who in their right mind doesn’t make sacrifices for the best turns on the hill?