Every night, after the ski lifts shutdown, the slopes are swept, and the night lights go off, something remarkable happens on the slopes of Mt. Hood Meadows. Ski runs that hosted thousands of happy skiers and snowboarders the day before undergo a transformation that takes moguls, ski ruts, chopped pow, ice, and sometimes even bare dirt and turns them all back into wide, flat ski runs, covered in smooth corduroy. The folks that do this work are Slope Groomers, men and women whom are awake when you are not, that ride $220,000 machines that can rumble-and-tear like a bulldozer but also paint-and-finesse like an artiste.
Though it may seem like the people that do this are magicians, the actual work is far from magic. What you see every morning is the result of the combined efforts of over fifteen people per night who are out there from dusk-til-dawn in all weather, pushing, dozing and tilling with their machines until they get the resort back into shape. Each night, all of Meadows' buildings, lifts, parks and pipes, parking areas, race shacks, Nordic trails, and avalanche-reduction tools see the hand of the Grooming crew, in addition to the work the crew does on the ski runs across the resort. Snow is shaped into ramps and takeoffs, bladed flat, track-packed, and tilled into that carveable corduroy surface we all know and love.
Within this crew, there is a smaller selection of operators that take all these standard grooming processes up onto our mountain's steep slopes with a specific grooming machine called a winch cat. This snowcat has a specifically-designed cable winch system built into it that can act as a brake to keep the cat from sliding out of control when dropping into steep runs, but also can act as an assist for when the cat needs to climb back up and out of those same slopes.
For anchors, the 7/16" diameter winch cable is picked (i.e. hooked) to large, healthy, properly positioned trees via a cloth lifting strap that allows the cat to drop into a slope at the proper angle. While most of our steeper runs have handy trees to use as anchors, there are treeless areas on the hill where we often need to use the winch cat. In these areas, a second snowcat is used as the anchor with the cable from the winch cat securely attached.
Operating only after other mountain staffers are off the hill, the winch cat takes over the entire area in which it's working; even other snowcats stay clear of the winch and its cable. In the morning when mountain staff arrives, protocols are in place throughout the various mountain operations departments to ensure a strung-out winch cable is well marked and staff made aware of areas in which winch-grooming operations are underway.
So, how steep is steep? The manufacturer of our machines says, assuming ideal snow providing perfect traction, our model of snowcat can climb and descend up to a 45 degree slope. What's that steep at Meadows? Not much. The Basalts, up above A-Zone hover in that range however they don't get groomed. The top break-over pitch of 4 Bowl at 38 or so degrees is probably the steepest thing we do groom. At this angle, traction is almost never solid enough for a normal cat, so this is where the winch comes into play.
So what's it like to drop a super steep pitch in a winch cat, your kung-fu grip keeping you glued to the pitch? For a first-time passenger, it's somewhat like dropping off a cliff. At the top break-over as the machine teeters above the brink, your heart starts to palpitate and your natural survival instinct pushes you back into your seat. As the machine creeps forward and the operator adjusts the winch tension, the cat tilts forward into the darkness. The cat's lights don't shine down low enough - you can't see what lies below. It tilts more and more. You start to fall forward out of your seat. Now you're standing on the floor - surely this can't be right? But then the cat finishes its forward tilt and the ground below you comes back into sight. It wasn't a cliff after all. Snow rolls and tumbles down in front of the cat as the operator blades and tills his way downhill. It feels like you should be sliding out of control down the slope in front of you, but you don't - the 7/16" diameter lifeline holds you as it should. Down at the bottom, your death-grip subsides as the cat turns around and starts back up the slope. During the climb, as gravity pushes back into your seat, you watch the strung-out cable jump and snap around as it disappears ahead of you into the darkness. Back at the top, as you crest the top of the pitch, you finally notice that you're smiling. Clearly you've begun to realize just how cool winch grooming is.
-- Photos and story by Rob Gayman, Grooming Manager