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Bedeviling Gravity

The Men Who Keep the “Grande Dame” Looking Her Finest

(page 2 of 3)

“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. >>>


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