As happy customers hit the morning gondolas, trams, lifts and runs, they’re excited about finding gorgeous corduroy cruisers, plenty of fresh snow and will never even think about avalanches. But behind the scenes at Lake Tahoe Ski Resorts, as well as those all over the world, earnest and attentive lift mechanics, snow cat drivers, snow making teams, ski and avalanche patrols, dispatchers and others like Jimmy King – the legendary Mountain Manager at Squaw Valley – are studying reports, worrying about weather, communicating with various departments and working nights so that each and every customer has a superlative, safe experience. “A weekend is no more important than a Wednesday, for the terrain remains the same and must be dealt with,” said King. He’s right. It’s relentless, every day and night for five, six, or even seven months depending on the place.
King, whose family came to San Francisco in the 1850’s, started as a lift operator at Squaw Valley in 1973, and knows this turf perhaps better than anyone. “It’s all about safety and communication – safety of employees and safety of guests.” He admits that things often change quickly. “Everything depends on Mother Nature, she controls our world,” said King. For instance, a small population of California Black Bears (ursus americanus) live in the woods somewhere near the Red Dog lift. Since bears and people don’t mix too well, a bear sighting is important and can shut down that portion of the mountain at once.
SNOW CATS – WHISTLER/BLACKCOMB British Columbia:
Snow Cats are like a cross between a tank, bulldozer and Zamboni machine, and every night are out on ski runs worldwide creating smooth, even surfaces by dragging, tilling, pushing and reshaping the snow. After a long day on the slopes, the snow can get pretty haggard, and it takes expert cat drivers to meticulously create those beautiful parallel corduroy rows visitors see in the morning. I had the opportunity of riding along for a night.
With 8,171 ski able acres of terrain, Whistler/Blackcomb in British Columbia is the largest ski resort in North America. The Whistler snow cat fleet, (about 30) operates two shifts per night on Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains. Depending on conditions they can sometime cover 1600 acres in a given night – an unbelievably large amount of terrain. The afternoon shift generally tackles the heavily trafficked runs, and the graveyard shift, starting at 12:30 AM groom the peripheral runs. Some snow cat drivers specialize in niches like carving the areas around lifts. “Lifties” – ski lift operators – often request certain groomers to take care of their particular area.
David Lakey, from a small town in BC, has been a snow cat operator for more than 28 years. Now the Blackcomb Mountain Grooming Supervisor, Lakey has the easygoing Canadian attitude befitting a former star bartender and hockey player.
He hops up into a bright red, $ 250,000 German built Snow Cat, a “Piston Bully,” and warms up the machine prior for his late afternoon/evening shift over the Blackcomb portion of the resort. The inside of his Snow Cat is surprisingly warm, almost too hot, though the heat helps keep the huge glass windows defrosted. Each ‘Cat is a little different but all have the comforts of home including heat, food, drinks and of course, music. On this evening, Lakey is trying to pick up a weak radio signal to catch a Vancouver Canucks hockey game, without much success. The radio crackles dimly, relaying action far away from the calm on top of Blackcomb Mountain. Some operators blast CD’s, I-Pods or bring Sirius radio systems into their cabs. Friends, girlfriends or dogs occasionally ride along for company.
Lakey continually answers his radio with, “Go for Grooming,” his unique response to a call. At one point lift maintenance calls in to say they are inspecting cable splicers on the Solarcoaster Express lift. Lakey checks to see when maintenance will be stopping the lift, to preclude any chance of a collision between his ‘Cat and bouncing chairs. About a half an hour later, right on schedule, the lift slows, and then stops.
At one point Lakey drives his heavy Piston Bully up some very steep terrain, and then bursts up and over the lip like a breaching submarine. Snow Cats are incredible maneuverable and can usually make it up or down 45 degree slopes. It isn’t actually too dangerous, since the machines are like slow heavy tanks, and there isn’t much to hit. However, without proper training and experience, a driver could get into trouble. “You’ve got to know the mountain inside and out,” said Lakey. A driver has to be able recognize the signs, barricades, and all the little peculiarities and sections of the many runs. “If it’s a white-out situation, drivers need to know where they are, and how to get down.” Driving off a cliff in a storm is highly uncommon, but not impossible. “It takes about three years to become a good, trusted cat driver.”
Methodically grooming away while planning the rest of his crews’ moves, Lakey is continually coordinating, helping out other drivers and organizing the next shift. Coming down Zig Zag, an Intermediate run, Lakey’s cat crunches and grinds up snow, leaving perfectly groomed corduroy tracks behind. “Runs have to be smooth, but the shape of the run also has to be precise. Still, each driver has his own style.”
Inside a snow cat for eight to nine hours (with a break or two thrown in) is pretty methodical, meticulous, constant and consistent, and certainly can get boring. But this type of work can be beautiful and serene too. Drivers may see the Northern Lights or the occasional moose, coyote, or bear. Plus, after requisite experience, drivers more or less get to do what they want, without a boss looking over their shoulder. Chris Shiner, a Whistler cat driver from Halifax said, “Driving is awesome, hey the machine does all the work.” He mentioned a common refrain amongst ski employees, lifestyle. “Basically, how do I ski for free and pay the bills?” Shiner estimates he skies over 100 days per year. Another Whistler operator, Corey Barlow, from Ontario said, “The majority of us work others jobs, in the summer I’m doing a remodel for my wife’s tattoo shop.” Dressed in requisite flannel shirt, jeans and boots, Barlow smiled as he got ready for his graveyard shift on the mountain.
Tomorrow: Snow making
c. Bob Ecker