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