The Men Who Keep the “Grande Dame” Looking Her Finest
A lot of people just assume that good grooming is corduroy—it’s way beyond that,” Kevin Klepser says. “Corduroy is just cosmetic.”
He understands something I don’t.
We are in the cab of a snowcat, heading directly down the icy face of upper Greyhawk, a black diamond run—skier parlance for advanced—on Bald Mountain. Klepser is driving a winch snowcat, a $225,000 piece of machinery designed to move up and down impossibly steep slopes. The sun is setting and the alpenglow is stunning. Sitting in the passenger seat with my seat buckle fastened, I am trying mostly not to think about the prospect of this very heavy machine hurtling out of control down Greyhawk and into Warm Springs Creek.
Klepser, a well-spoken man, seems unfazed by the pitch before him. He spends his winters driving a snowcat at America’s oldest ski resort, Sun Valley, the “Grande Dame” of winter playgrounds renowned for its impeccable grooming. His job, on the most basic of levels, is to undo all that gravity has done. On a typical Sun Valley ski day somewhere between 3,000 and 7,000 skiers and boarders carve the slopes, the snow sluffing downhill with every turn. Klepser and his team put it all back where it was, then make it look nice.
“There is a lot more going on behind the scenes than people realize. It is a lot more than driving up and down the hill,” he says.
A former ski patrolman, Klepser loves to ski and mentions that he has skied more than 60 days this season. He is clean-cut and humble. When asked about his experience, he casually mentions his role as the lead grooming operator during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Park City, Utah. His experience is evident through his attention to detail.
Just a few hours earlier, I was sitting at a conference table in the River Run maintenance building with Klepser and his team. We gathered for the afternoon meeting held daily before the groomers go to work. I sipped coffee as Kerry O’Brien, grooming manager for Sun Valley Company, outlined the evening’s grooming program.
On any given night, there are more than 500 acres on Bald Mountain to groom, and nine snowcat machines do the work.
In an eight-hour shift, one driver can groom between 45 and 60 acres, but everything depends upon the snow conditions. Ideally, the snow is hard, temperatures are cold, and there is a skiff of new snow. If there are bad conditions—wet snow or warm temperatures—the grooming department backs off the acreage to ensure a better product.
Each day, O’Brien decides, depending on conditions, which runs will be groomed that night. Of course, snow conditions change periodically through the night.
“I don’t sleep during winter,” he laughs.
Numerous factors play into O’Brien’s decisions. One of his goals is to distribute skiers across the resort to reduce traffic in particular areas. “You disperse the skiers so you don’t have a line at any particular lift,” says O’Brien. He also works particularly closely with the snowmaking department. >>>
“Snowmaking and grooming have to work very close together, otherwise it would be a train wreck,” he explains. Another factor is safety. O’Brien consults daily with the ski patrol to identify any developing snow hazards that he might be able to eliminate.
After 15 years as the grooming manager and an additional 10 years working in the snowmaking department, O’Brien is well versed in the art of grooming.
Glancing at a single white piece of paper during the meeting, O’Brien shares the grooming program with his team. He calls this the “Grooming Call.” It includes areas that are routinely groomed such as Warm Springs and Seattle Ridge. Other areas are considered special grooming projects, a couple of which O’Brien designates each day.
Tonight, Klepser and I are on just such a special grooming assignment. He operates one of two winch cats on Bald Mountain, a snowcat specially equipped with a winch cable assembly that allows it to climb steep pitches, typically slopes of 45 degrees or more. To climb uphill, the system uses the power of a winch and strength of a cable attached to a fixed point at the top of the slope. The other cats, those without winches, are called “free cats.”
Klepser’s work day begins at the base of River Run, after the lifts have closed and the ski patrol has swept the mountain clear of people. The cab of his snowcat is comfortable, warm and quiet. The hum of the machine is barely audible. Dials, gauges, meters and switches decorate the interior. Windows, secured with extra layers of protection, wrap around the cab.
“Grooming 101 is you never want to make a wasted pass,” he explains as we travel up the mountain. A pass refers to the groomed product that is produced as a cat passes over snow. “Even if the rest of the guys are going to take care of this run, I still want to make as efficient a pass as I possibly can. You never randomly go out there and throw a pass down, even if you are just traveling to another spot. Every pass counts.”
Later, after Klepser finishes with the upper Greyhawk run, we traverse across Bald Mountain to Christmas Bowl. While the free cats often work together to groom a run, Klepser typically works alone in his winch cat.
“When you are by yourself, you pretty much want to be self-sufficient. You don’t want to be leaving a mess that somebody else is going to know about,” he remarks. “That’s one of the things that these guys do really well here—they don’t leave anything for chance. They never assume that somebody else is going to come behind here. The guys have a really good feel and eye for detail.”
Detail is essential to grooming. “The more time and effort you put into detail, the cleaner everything is and the better everyone thinks the grooming is. It really pays off.”
Klepser controls the nuances of grooming details from inside the snowcat. “I’m making lots of tiny, tiny movements because I am trying to keep the cat in a straight line as much as possible,” he says. “I compensate for the resistance by steering left and right or adjusting the winch pressure to keep the cat going straight. At all costs you are trying to protect the previous pass.”
Ridges of snow that can form between machine passes are a groomer’s nightmare. “The number one thing that dooms grooming at any resort is ridge lines left in the run itself,” Klepser says. It’s the most common complaint he hears on the chairlift. “I don’t tell them I’m a groomer. If it’s a good grooming day, you won’t hear the word ‘ridges’ come up at all. But if the grooming isn’t that great, the first thing you will hear skiers say is, ‘Graduate had a lot of ridges on it.’”
To avoid leaving ridges, Klepser has a steady hand on what resembles a video game joystick located between the two seats. This instrument controls the tiller, which is attached to the back of the cat. The tiller processes the snow and redistributes it back onto the slope. A series of cones in this apparatus presses down the processed snow to make the finished product most people know as corduroy.
“If you aren’t a good multitasker, winch cat operating is not the task for you. There are so many things you have to be aware of,” he says.
At the top of Christmas Bowl, Klepser pauses to attach the cable to a fixed anchor. He gets on the radio and announces: “Attention all units. Winch cat number nine in operation, upper Christmas Bowl.”
He may work alone, but he is in constant communication throughout the night with the other groomers. “You pay attention to the work radio. There’s a pattern going on. You are trying to pay attention to how far along the other guys are, so you know if you are falling behind, if you need to speed up, or if you need to get someplace.”
One might expect the work to be solitary. In truth, the groomers work independently, but function best as a team. >>>
“I could go out and butcher something and the whole department will take a hit,” Klepser explains. “It’s nice that everybody here at Sun Valley works really hard to make sure that the work done on a nightly basis is good. Everybody does the best job they possibly can. The skill level here is quite high. I think that’s because of the longevity. There is no substitute for experience.” On the crew there are five guys with more than 20 years’ experience and two men with more than 15 years’ experience. “The skiing public benefits hugely from that kind of consistency.”
Experience isn’t the only thing that counts. “I think, too, to be a good groomer, you need to be a skier,” Klepser adds. “I guess it’s not absolutely mandatory, but skiing is a big part of grooming. It gives you a feel for the runs, way more than just running a snowcat all the time.”
Most of the people who groom at Sun Valley have a background in skiing. They are former lift operators, ski patrolmen, and snowmakers. And that experience working in other capacities on the mountain is valuable, as it gives groomers an idea what the other departments may need. A former lift operator may notice that the chairlift loading ramps need grooming, or a former ski patrolman may recognize a potential skiing hazard.
“It really helps to ski,” he says. “You can check out other people’s work, check your own work out and see things you missed.”
Klepser works the swing shift—4 p.m. to midnight—which gives him plenty of time to ski and evaluate his work. Grooming responsibilities are split between the swing shift and graveyard shift, 12:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. The former has a larger crew and does the bulk of the grooming. In total, the grooming team works for a 16-hour period, more than twice as long as the mountain is open for skiing.
Back on Christmas Bowl, we switch anchor points. This time Klepser wraps a strap around a tree and then attaches the cable hook to the strap. I find it hard to believe the tree will support the weight of the 18,000-pound winch cat.
“I like to do the risky projects that are high-pressure jobs,” he says. Ski runs that are visible from the lift are considered high pressure, because the public has time to critique the grooming while riding uphill. Christmas Bowl is particularly challenging because it is highly visible, and groomers must contend with the trees and snowmaking guns.
There are many other things—besides corduroy—that indicate if a run is groomed well. A well-groomed run is flat, has a good fall line, and does not have thin spots.
Dark now, a spotlight illuminates the path for the snowcat. With the moonlight, however, it is surprisingly light outside.
“When the headlights come on, it’s easier to see all of your mistakes. The shadows show up, and you see every inconsistency,” Klepser says.
Clockwise from top: Bill Dyer: 11 Seasons, Kevin Klepser: 3 Seasons, Jack Seagraves: 30 Seasons, Jim Wieand: 26 Seasons, Dan Hoffman: 4 Seasons, Chad Vandellen: 1 Season, Brad Welcome: 26 Seasons, Charlie Kucher: 11 Seasons
At 9 p.m., it’s lunchtime for the groomers. Klepser finishes a few more passes on River Run, before meeting the rest of the crew at the ski patrol hut on the top of the mountain.
There is a jovial mood inside as operators dine on spaghetti, soup and sandwiches, while joking about the March Madness basketball games on television.
These guys enjoy each other and their work.
“This has got to be one of the best jobs in the Valley,” Charlie Kucher, a grooming supervisor, tells me. “There is a lot of mystique in cat driving.”
As they finish their late-night lunch, their conversation takes on a more serious tone. The operators want to discuss the hazards of skiing during grooming hours.
Nearly all of the men at the table are skiers. The operators are concerned that the public is unaware of the danger posed by winch cat grooming. Someone may end up seriously injured or killed.
“If the winch cable did break, you wouldn’t want to catch a skier with it,” Klepser says. “There is so much traffic on this mountain. I have had more people cross my cable in the last two years than in the last 20 years.”
When a winch cat is in operation, the cable may lie hidden in the snow as a cat moves downhill. Climbing uphill, the cable is apt to whiplash through the air. They fear that a skier may get caught in the cable’s path.
Klepser explains, “I just want people to realize we are working up here and it’s dangerous. If they aren’t paying attention, they can get seriously hurt. That’s what we are concerned about.”
The serious conversation ends, and the cat drivers load up for the second half of their shift. I’m tired, they are not.
Inside the cab I am awed by the beauty of the other cats leaving the top of the mountain. The lights trail away as the operators return to finish their shifts. The train of lights twinkles magically against the snow. The beauty of the cats is spectacular; so is the quality of their work.
It’s a luxury often taken for granted by skiers. There is a tremendous amount of work, dedication, and knowledge necessary to maintain this winter playground.
As he closes his cat door, Klepser remarks, “It boils down to this: if the skiers are happy, we’re happy.”
Megan Thomas spends much of her time skiing the pristine slopes of Sun Valley. She now has true appreciation for grooming and the people who dedicate themselves to the work.