Grooming the slopes, an art unto itself

February 18, 2011 7:30:16 PM PST
Heading out to the slopes after a good dose of snow on the mountains always makes for an enjoyable trip out to the Sierra. But what many skiers and snowboarders don't realize is just what goes into getting the mountain ready for a perfect day on the slopes.

Late in the day, as you are taking your last run down the slope, modern-day mountain men are just getting to work. Heavenly, one of Lake Tahoe's biggest ski resorts, uses a snow grooming team. It takes 16 snow cats, running all night, to keep the slopes in top condition.

"A lot of veteran operators here," says grooming manager Todd Rudis. "We have about 250 years of combined experience on the crew."

And this year they all want the same thing.

"Everyone wants to run the beast," he says.

The beast is a brand new grooming machine, bigger and more efficient than ever before. In the world of snow cats, it's considered the sporty model.

"It's 500 horsepower," says Rudis. "Designed on the inside of this by Pininfarina, an Italian company. They do work for Ferrari."

The Heavenly fleet includes two beasts. ABC7 rode along with Keith Bachman and Bryan Hickman as they headed out to make their mark on the snow.

"You show up here, it's a blank canvas," describes Hickman. "People have been skiing it all day long and it's pretty beat up, especially after some of those holiday weekends when you have a lot of people out on the hill."

As people ski and snowboard, they naturally push the snow to the edge of the runs and down the hill. The groomer's job is to spread it evenly, back in the center. The beast has a front blade 22 feet wide, compared to 17 feet on older models. The blade pushes the snow in place and then the tiller on the back creates the smooth surface.

"You want it to be as flat as possible and of course have that seamless corduroy," says Hickman.

The snow cats go up and down the slope -- again and again -- until it's perfect.

"This is the best job on the mountain. This is my office here and you can't beat the office view. I get to run around all night grooming and then I get to ski all day long," says Hickman. "You definitely have a pride of ownership in your runs -- the ones that you do a lot."

Early in the season, Hickman spent two weeks sculpting the snow to get a black diamond run open. Heavy wind and weird angles still make it particularly tough to tame. The beast can make a big difference, with both power and great visibility from the cab.

"We even have a rear view camera that comes on when it's in reverse," he says..

On the top of the mountain the temperature can drop below zero, but inside the cab it stays toasty warm.

The team works until midnight. Then another crew works until the lifts open in the morning and then that perfect corduroy is all yours.

"It's definitely a craft," says Rudis. "The product you leave behind is your signature."

The Heavenly team says grooming technology is changing so quickly, they replace a third of their fleet every year.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.

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