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Snowcat drivers smooth out slopes all night, enjoy sunrises

January 14, 2009

MONARCH MOUNTAIN - It's not quite 5 a.m. The wind is howling. The snow is blowing. And atop Monarch Mountain, Vance Burgess cannot get a thousand feet of half-inch-thick steel cable to spool neatly onto the drum on the rear of his Prinoth winch cat.

"Come on baby, feed for me," Burgess says to the machine.

If the cable misfeeds, it'll bind and the $315,000 snowcat will be stuck in the middle of one of Monarch's more popular runs. That, in turn, means a lot of other slopes will not be groomed by the time the lifts open at 9 a.m. - and the $5,000 cable will have to be replaced.

"It's like when your fishing line gets all messed up," Burgess explains.

He backs up, unspooling the line, goes forward, then repeats the maneuver. Eventually, he gets the line to snap in place by putting more tension on the cable - essentially letting the winch pull the 24,000-pound snowcat up the hill without help from the tracks.

It's a minor setback in the nightly struggle to tame the moguls, drifts and debris left on the mountain after a busy day of skiing and a windy night. Burgess and two other cat drivers begin their job at 11 p.m. and drive through the night to make sure the resort is in good shape when the lifts start turning.

Corduroy gets short shrift among serious skiers.

Yeah, Texans love it and Beaver Creek spends a bazillion dollars advertising it, but to a lot of hard-core skiers and snowboarders, the corduroy furrows the groomers lay down are simply something you endure between trips into the powder and through the bumps.

Without grooming, however, the powder and the bumps would grow as big on the bunny slopes as they are on the double-black chutes - and that would turn the learning curve into a cliff and leave experts and newbies alike floundering on the flats. Snow grooming was introduced in the 1940s, and while there are many ski areas that don't have snowmaking (including Monarch), vanishingly few go without grooming (Colorado's all-double-diamond Silverton Mountain might be the exception that proves the rule).

So, although Monarch's grooming crew is a fraction the size of the big Colorado resorts, every night they groom every green run and most of the blues, pushing mounds of snow to cover the rocks and bare spots and smoothing the run-outs from the steep runs so skiers can cruise back to the lifts.

Once or twice a week they use the winch cat to tame the bumps that proliferate on black-diamond runs.

The average skier pushes a thousand pounds of snow down the hill in a day. Without groomers to plow some of that back up the hill, we'd be rock skiing all season long. The cats don't just rake the snow, they press and pack it, and the tiller on the back of Burgess' machine takes the air and fluff out, leaving a firm surface that can stand up to the pounding thousands of skiers dish out.

Driving a cat, even when not using the complicated winch system on steep runs, is a delicate art. The tracks and turning are controlled by two levers at the driver's left hand.

A joystick with more buttons than a fighter jet controls the blade, which twists 12 ways to push, scoop, fold or plow snow, and also manipulates the tiller or rake at the rear, which itself moves side to side and up and down.

You can learn to drive a cat in a couple of minutes, says Ed Clark as he drives another snowcat up the exit trail from Monarch's Mirkwood Basin. It's leaving the mountain in better shape than you found it that requires expertise - Clark's been a cat driver for nine years and a groomer for five.

"There's a difference between driving it and using it as a tool," Clark says as he slides the cat's tiller from side to side to avoid trees on the narrow track. "That blade is a hard thing to get used to using. It's like playing the drums: Every one of your appendages is doing something."

In white-out blizzards, drivers struggle just to stay on the hill, shining spotlights through the murk to find reflectors placed on trees around the resort.

In deep powder, they push piles of snow as high as the cat's heated side mirrors - nearly 7 feet off the ground.

"People don't understand what we drive through sometimes," Burgess says. "A couple weeks ago, I couldn't see the blade."

On this night, the wind seems to be undoing their best efforts. It's like building a sand castle as the tide comes in.

"Hopefully, this wind doesn't destroy what I did in an hour and they're calling me at 7, ‘You didn't even do our ramp,'" Burgess says.

Burgess, 31, is a native of Salida, at the base of Monarch Pass, and a former chef. It's his ninth year on the mountain and he enjoys his job, if not always the hours.

"It can get to be a lonely job for sure, driving around by yourself all night," he says.

It's not, perhaps surprisingly, a cold job most of the time. The snowcats are kept hot to prevent the windows from fogging up, although they do anyway. There's also ice on the windshield wipers, even those that have their own heating system. It's not a friendly environment.

But it has its compensations. The groomers get first tracks on the mountain any day they want. They can also grab an empty spot on Monarch's backcountry cat skiing tours. And when the sun comes up, the views are amazing.

"I think my favorite part of the whole job are the sunrises," Clark says. "They're epic, every morning. Not everybody gets to hang out on top of the Continental Divide and call that their office."




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