Don’t just thank the snow gods… thank the groomers too
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Golden, B.C. – As the rest of the patrons at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort drove the dark road back to Golden or tucked into their slope-side accommodations, I waited at the base of the gondola for my ride. I could hear it and see the beaming headlights long before I saw it crawl like a bug over the lip of the last pitch and slowly grind down the slope. Talk about exciting. I was about to go for a ride-along of a lifetime. Yup, it was a big kick-ass Prinoth Bison snow groomer and I was going to the top.
Andrew Deitch is the Team Lead for the grooming team and he kindly came in on a day – or I should say – night off to take me on a tour. With the blade up and the grooming track at the back down, we pivot and head up the slope.
We start on “It’s a Ten,” then turn up a trail Andrew knew needed grooming and he drops the blade.
“The blading is tricky. It depends on the snow and the part of the season. You really get to know where the snow is on the mountain,” says Andrew. “You get to know the feeling of the snow through the joystick and the seat of your pants. Seriously – you can feel the machine pass over rocks.”
It takes two different crews and almost 18 hours to groom the hill.
There are two teams of four groomers each night. The 4 p.m. to midnight crew usually does most of the grooming and the midnight to 10 a.m. crew grooms as much as they can before daylight. The green runs are the last in the morning, just before the resort opens. The rest of that shift is spent prepping the machines to be ready for the 4 p.m. crew. By the time the cats park for the day, the team has groomed the resort for a cumulative time of roughly 50 hours, with many of the machines covering 40 to 60 kilometres of terrain.
Even though Kicking Horse doesn’t rely on snowmaking machines for the majority of its snow, snowmakers are blasting on the bottom slopes that have high traffic. The team sends someone out to check the guns every hour around the clock to check for position, wind and snow quality.
A plethora of dials, gauges, toggles and buttons
“Ummmm, Andrew?” I asked nervously as we head straight up a steep incline. “Don’t you think this is just a bit too steep to drive up?” It’s not that I didn’t trust his driving skills. After all, between grooming at Lake Louise and the Horse, he’s got at least 15 years of running these massive machines. But we were going straight up something I don’t usually ski straight down.
He smiled and assured me its fine. His left hand controls the left track and his right hand has the joystick with 10 buttons and a dial to control the blade, the tiller, the auger and many more bells and whistles.
Dials, gauges and toggles line the dashboard. A voice from the base breaks through to tell us another machine is working nearby. I’m lost in the distractions!
For Andrew Deitch, job satisfaction is the smiles he sees as visitors look up the hill first thing in the morning and think about their first runs.
“The steepest pitches are winched. We have two cats specific for that. Show-off for instance is winched and some of the stuff under Stairway to Heaven chair has to be winched, but it needs good snow for us to work it. Flags, barriers and warnings are set out so no one can get in the way. Believe it or not, there are people who sneak out for full moon runs and that can be really dangerous.”
I make a note to nominate the trespassers for the Darwin Award.
We rolled up to the summit where light spills from the massive windows at the Eagle’s Eye Restaurant. We do a lap around the building. Only a few diners look up to see what we are doing. In their defence, I’ve eaten up there and the food steals the show.
Moving at a blistering speed of maybe 5 kph, we crept up Cloud Nine to groom along Redemption Ridge Road. If you’ve been down that run to pop into Feuz Bowl, you know there isn’t much room to turn. Try that in a snow cat!
As he maneuvered to return to the summit, Andrew talked about how he usually listens to podcasts when he’s driving the machines. Yeah, he was trying to get me to NOT look over the edge! There was no doubt he had the ability but hanging out over the edge was unsettling.
The skier/visitor is always top of mind
“It’s all about balance,” he assured me. “I’ve fallen off roads before. You just have to stay calm and know your machine and surroundings. As a groomer you are more worried about what could go wrong for the skier. That’s probably more of a scary part.”
Enough with the scary stuff, I ask him what’s the best part of the job and he doesn’t hesitate to answer.
“I’ve laid thousands of miles of corduroy, but I think I like carving the roads best right now. I also really like helping train the new guys. I get to ski all I want. And I like that my job brings so much pleasure to so many people. I’ve worked for other big companies, but never felt the instant reward that I get everyday here. Kids get to learn to ski, tourist come and see how great our mountain is.”
Does he mind that no one knows how much effort goes into prepping the slopes?
“Its too bad we don’t see anyone. It would be nice to get a wave or two. But, it’s cool to walk away in the morning and see the excited people look up and dream about how great the day will be. Nothings better than grooming fresh pow. I love setting up the day for everyone.”
After a few hours, Andrew drops me back at the base. As I walk away, I remember to give a giant wave. I can see him laugh and nod before heading back up to set tomorrow’s corduroy.