WHITEFISH, Mont. (AP) — From dusk until wintery dawn, the luminous beams of alpine snowcats rove up and down Big Mountain, smoothing the ski slopes into eggshell consistency before furrowing vertical ribs of corduroy into the runs with a revolving rear tiller.
The yellow orbs are visible from this ski town’s valley floor on a clear night, twinkling silently against the ski slopes.
Each morning, skiers are treated to freshly groomed blankets of narrow-wale snow.
By afternoon, the ski runs of Whitefish Mountain Resort have been rendered humped and choppy and the fleet of groomers, working in two shifts totaling 17 hours, will resume the Sisyphean task of combing the undulating snow into an even canvas.
“We basically get to be the stewards and the caretakers of the mountain,” groomer Kris Carpenter said on a recent night. “It’s rewarding. All of the groomers I know are proud of their work.”
Last year, readers of SKI Magazine recognized the groomers at Whitefish Mountain Resort by ranking the ski area 11th in the nation for quality grooming, a significant improvement over the previous year, when Big Mountain was ranked 22nd. This year, having added a new grooming machine called a winch cat to its stable, the mountain hopes to raise the bar even higher.
“Our groomers really get into their job, and they go into each season wanting to improve the quality of our grooming,” grooming supervisor Rory Kizer said. “It is a real sense of pride for the crew and it guides the work they do.”
The crew of 18 operators boasts a collective grooming experience of 150 years, most of them logged on Big Mountain, and the workforce sees little turnover, Kizer said.
This season, Whitefish Mountain Resort purchased a new and improved winch cat, a machine that can be anchored to trees using a winching cable and a rotating boom, allowing the operator to cover steep, soft terrain, yo-yoing along the vertical ski runs in conditions that would cause a free-grooming machine to slide and ruin the work.
“It’s great to be able to mix it up and create some different runs,” Carpenter said of the new machine, which at 25 percent more horsepower and 25 percent more winch power, allows him to climb steep, soft passes at twice the ground speed of the resort’s old winch cat.
“All the improvements equal more ground covered and a better finished product,” Riley Polumbus, Whitefish Mountain Resort’s public relations manager, said.
Each snowcat can groom about five acres an hour, Kizer said, and together the fleet tills approximately 350 acres every night, depending on snow conditions.
A grooming operator must know the mountain from top to bottom, a familiarity that allows them to navigate the runs on foggy evenings when visibility is nonexistent.
On a recent night under a rare clear sky, Marc Evans groomed the popular ski run Toni Matt while piloting a Caterpillar HR 350, a non-winching machine known as a “free groomer.” An expanse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness extended into the distance as Evans read the fall lines of Big Mountain, pushing snow into divots and knocking down unsightly lumps.
“It’s tough to beat the view from the office,” he said from the snowcat’s heated cab, deftly operating a joystick to control the machine’s blade and tiller. “We love clear nights like tonight because you can see your passes, but most of the time you’re going by Braille. You have to recognize trees and terrain features.”
There’s a tactile satisfaction that groomers derive from laying out smooth, unblemished blankets of corduroy, and Evans winced when he spotted a slaloming ski track cutting through one of his passes.
“Corduroy is pretty. You look at a run at the end of a night and it’s just wall-to-wall carpet. It’s really cool,” he said.
His grooming shift began around 4 p.m. and, while Whitefish Mountain allows uphill travel on some sections of the mountain, the skier who tracked across the run had been making turns on forbidden territory.
Besides being an eyesore, it’s also a growing safety hazard, particularly as Carpenter and the new winch cat are able to cover more terrain on a given night — terrain that night skiers aren’t used to seeing groomed.
Hanging from a spider thread of steel cable attached to a tree as an anchor, Carpenter was recently winching along a steep black diamond run called Powder Trap. As the lights of his machine disappeared into a bowl, the cable bounced around erratically, slapping snow and snapping pine branches while crossing over a cat track like a garrote. If an unruly skier had descended the off-limits trail, the ligature of wire would cause severe injuries.
“We are getting nervous about all the night skiing traffic around this winch cat,” Kizer said. “If people don’t respect inbound closures, sooner or later someone is going to get hurt really bad.”
The groomers operate the winch cat and other grooming machines around the uphill policy (skiwhitefish.com/uphill/) but uphill skiing on Big Mountain is prohibited after 7 p.m.
“We run our grooming in accordance with that uphill policy to allow those runs to be open to hikers, but they are not respecting the rules,” Kizer said.
Polumbus said more skiers have been complimenting the high level of grooming this season than ever before, but some skiers don’t recognize the danger of violating the uphill travel policy, prompting resort officials to issue sharp warnings.
“We are more efficient and getting more runs groomed, and that is all positive stuff,” she said. “But people need to realize that the cable could kill someone. That is why the uphill policy absolutely needs to be followed.
Carpenter, who graduated high school in Whitefish and has been grooming since the mid-1990s, said the new winch cat was a significant and worthwhile investment for the resort, and he navigated the steep, uneven contours of Powder Trap with surgical deftness.
“Snow is such a diverse medium to work with, so you need a machine that has a lot of capabilities,” he said. “With the winch cat we can groom a foot of fresh powder on a steep run or spring corn, and everything in between.”
Having spent a portion of his childhood on a ranch in eastern Montana, Carpenter grew up operating tractors and combines. He likens the experience to running a groomer, but, instead of wheat, snow is the crop of choice.
“It’s a cool job. We get to drive around on a mountain in a big machine and lay down great ski runs,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine not grooming.”