Taking pride in grooming Vail | VailDaily.com

Taking pride in grooming Vail

Chris Outcalt
Vail, CO Colorado
Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyCat operator Megan Danaher follows her pack of cats up Simba Run as they do their morning grooming Friday on Vail Mountain. Each day the cat operators are given a list of the days' runs to be groomed.

VAIL, Colorado ” Mark Delpiere constantly checks his rearview mirrors. The view of Vail Mountain behind him is more important than anything he can see looking straight ahead.

He’s learned from years of practice. Delpiere ” or “Delp” as his co-workers refer to him ” has been grooming snow for decades. He worked on Vail Mountain’s crew for 10 years. He left for a while, but couldn’t stay away.

“It’s an addictive job,” said Delpiere, who has been back at it for four years and is one of the foreman on Vail’s night grooming crew.

Using the snowcat’s mirrors gives Delpiere a chance to review the product he and about 15 others work through the night to make sure is ready for the first skiers and riders in Vail’s lift lines the next morning ” fresh, flat corduroy.

They groom everywhere. The crew breaks the mountain up into seven different pods: Game Creek Bowl, Lionshead, Chair 2, Mid-Vail, Northeast Bowl, China Bowl and Blue Sky Basin. There are certain trails in each pod that always get groomed.

“Where do you groom is the biggest question we get,” Delpiere said. “We’re all over the mountain.”

The goal is to have a path of corduroy from the top to bottom of every lift.

“As soon as your skis touch the snow your going from corduroy top to bottom,” Delpiere said.

When Delpiere and the rest of the night crew finish their shift around 2 a.m., the morning crew isn’t far behind. Another fleet of snowcats grooms the mountain in the early morning and afternoon.

The way Vail gets groomed varies from night to night depending on the snow conditions. A lot of the work focuses on the tiller ” a fast-twirling blade attached to the back of the cats used to chop up the snow.

The harder the snow, the faster and deeper the operator runs the tiller. The operators also spend more time on a trail when the snow is hard.

“It takes these guys a good half-season to mess with these tillers and learn what they can do with it,” Delpiere said.

Soft snow makes for the best grooming. After a powder day, a run usually needs just one pass.

“The better the snow, the better the grooming,” said Ray Dixon.

Dixon is in his sixth year on the crew. He started as a lift operator and eventually got a job on the grooming crew. He left the mountain and got a law degree a couple years ago, but made his way back to Vail after realizing operating a snow cat was what he wanted to do.

“It’s the coolest job I’ve ever had,” Dixon said. “I don’t think I’ll change from this.”

Dixon started operating one of the mountain’s six winch cats last season. The winch cats are similar to the mountain’s regular groomers, but have a heavy metal cable attached to the top of the vehicle. The cable can be fixed to a metal anchor or a tree, allowing it to groom steeper terrain.

“It’s a unique experience,” Dixon said. “I don’t think there are many jobs like this.”

The first thing Delpiere does when he hires a new snow cat operator is give them two trail maps.

Groomers are expected to know the mountain as well as anyone, and it takes about a season to do it, Delpiere said.

“We have people that come over from the lift department that say they know the mountain ” they don’t,” Dixon said. “Try going up the trail in the dark in a blizzard.”

Dixon has started to associate certain trees and signs with trails so he knows where he is.

Delpiere not only knows every trail, but has no trouble describing the contour of a certain run off the top of his head. It helps him groom the trails more efficiently.

“The fall line dictates how we groom,” Delpiere said. “You always groom from high to low.”

Vail Mountain was ranked fifth in this year’s Ski Magazine reader poll of the best resorts for grooming. They were behind, Beaver Creek, Snowmass, Mount Sunapee, N.H. and Deer Valley, Utah.

The crew is pretty happy with the ranking. They were eighth last year. But because of the size of Vail it will be hard to ever be ranked first, and they may not want to be, Delpiere said.

“Even if we had say a hypothetical number of cats to groom this mountain to that extent we still couldn’t do it because of the back bowls,” Delpiere said. “There are areas back there we’ll never groom ” the public wants that to be left untouched.”

A couple years ago, the crew experimented with grooming Ricky’s Ridge in Sun Down Bowl. People got mad, Delpiere said.

“It was a lot of the locals,” Delpiere said. “We have to save some terrain.”

Denver resident Steve Willcut would love to ski nothing but powder, but the conditions and his legs don’t always allow it.

“It’s fun to carve a fast turn and feel like a ski racer for a few minutes,” Willcut said. “I can’t do black runs all day long, my knees won’t take the beating.”

Ron Luehring likes to mix in groomed runs when he’s skiing.

“I like the steep and deep, but sometimes you have to have something that’s dependable,” Luehring said. “Sometimes that’s all there is. It’s too hard to do the moguls because they’re too hard or they’re icy.”

Staff Writer Chris Outcalt can be reached at 970-748-2931 or coutcalt@vaildaily.com.

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