For over 30 years, Rip Collins has been grooming snow at Alta Ski Area in Utah.
Each night, after everyone else has left the mountain, Collins and his crew load into their grooming machines, also called snow cats, and begin knocking down moguls and smoothing roughed up snow.
The Alta grooming crew, like many others, is nocturnal, working two overnight shifts from 5:00 p.m. to 8:30 a.m.
Their goal? To transform the mountain by morning, replacing “used” snow with smooth pristine corduroy on runs designated as “groomed.”
Snow Grooming 101
At it’s most basic, snow grooming is how resorts and ski areas prepare snow so that their guests can have the best possible skiing and riding experience.
As Charles Blier, Prinoth Vice-President of Sales for North America explains “Grooming is all about the last six inches of snow surface — what it looks like and feels like, first thing in the morning.
Using large tractors, equipped with blades on the front and tillers on the back, snow cat operators spend each night rearranging, smoothing and reforming this top six inches of snow.
With each pass over the snow, the front blade mows down moguls, churns up crud, and grinds the snow, while the rear tiller erases the snowcat tracks, smoothing everything out and leaving a white carpet of lightly lined snow, that looks like corduroy fabric (hence, the name).
In addition to keeping skiers and riders happy, grooming also helps ski resorts keep their snow in the best condition possible.
Ski areas are subject to the whims of Mother Nature.
At one extreme, snow falls and everyone enjoys a powder day.
At the other extreme, there’s a shortage of natural snowfall and groomers have to incorporate manmade snow into the compacted surface.
Other natural factors, such as temperature, wind and sunlight can also change up how the grooming crew works.
According to Rip Collins, good grooming is an art.
“We want a perfect product when we groom. We train our operators to make the best skiing experience, which also makes it safer.
“Every time I groom a path, I strive to make the corduroy pristine. Every time we groom, the snow cats and operators create a blank canvas for skiers to lay tracks on.”
In addition to laying down perfect corduroy, snow cats are also used to build freestyle terrain parks, skier and snowboard cross courses and Terrain Based Learning beginner areas.
Terrain Based Learning is a learn-to ski and snowboard program developed by SNOW Operating in partnership with Prinoth and 42 resorts across North America and in Australia.
Using snow cats, resorts build mini-slopes, half pipes, rollers, banked turns and other small features for beginners. As beginners slide gently downhill on these features they learn to balance and turn. As the terrain moves gently uphill, they learn to stop naturally.
Vermont’s Killington Resort has a large Terrain Based Learning program, with two dedicated teaching areas. Paul Buhler, a Killington groomer and ski instructor, grooms these areas and has learned what works best at Killington.
“At Killington, many of our features are built below grade. For example, our banked “S” turns are carved into the trail. Other resorts build these above grade. It really depends upon each resort’s topography, wind, water, access to snowmaking and the snow cats available to do the best job.”
World Cup Grooming
Race course preparation is another specialized type of snow grooming.
The process starts at the beginning of the season with snowmaking. Then, through a process of tilling, grooming and reblading, groomers homogenize the snow into a solid, hard race surface.
In 2002, Snowbasin Resort in Utah hosted the Olympic Downhill for men and women. Downhill courses are notoriously steep and the venues at Snowbasin are no different.
Winch cats are used for grooming steep pitches and were used for the Olympics at Snowbasin.
A winch cat is a snowcat mounted with a cable that extends from the cat to anchors on the ski run. The cable holds the weight of the snowcat as it travels down the hill and when the cat gets to the bottom of the pitch it turns around and the cable helps pull it back up the hill.
In addition to grooming downhill and other race courses, winch cats can be to groom any steep run. They are also used to move snow uphill when necessary. Because winch cats harness the power of the winch and cable, they are more energy efficient than traditional snow groomers, according to Blier.
Operating a winch cat is a specialized skill because the cable adds an extra component to the grooming.
Since winch cats do not fleet groom (when all the snow cats follow each other up the run side by side staggered diagonally across the hill) or pair groom (when two snow cats work together), a winch cat operator spends the night working alone, communicating with other groomers to help them avoid the cable.
What it Takes to Be a Snow Cat Operator
Snow grooming takes a lot of skill and developing this skill takes time on the job.
Novice drivers basically begin as apprentices, working with experienced operators and taking turns controlling the groomer until they are ready for their own machine.
Like every job, there are tradeoffs and rewards.
Operators also have to stay alert while working through the night and to accept responsibility for safety, both for themselves and other groomers. They are also responsible for providing the best snow possible, every day of the ski season.
As for the rewards, here are three: Groomers get to drive a big, fascinating machine. They know that skiers and snowboarders appreciate and enjoy their work. And, since they work all night, they’ve got at least some time each day to ski.
No wonder Rip Collins has been at it for over 30 years.
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