I can turn snow into corduroy. So can you, if you pay attention during the Snowcat Driving Experience at Crested Butte Mountain Resort.
Snow groomers skim the chilly surfaces of ski resorts around the country each winter night, smoothing rough patches, freshening the snow and putting perfect, inch-high ridges called corduroy over the slopes. To learn how it’s done, I signed up for a class in the basics.
After a brief orientation, lead instructor Alan Gruber invited me to climb into The Beast, a powerful 500-horsepower tractor with a 12-way blade on the front and a 15-foot tiller on the back, so he could show me the ropes.
Gruber learned to drive a grooming machine back in 1977, when equipment was less reliable and the tractors sometimes sputtered to a halt on snowy hillsides long after dark. Today’s machines are luxurious by comparison, with ergonomically designed seats, refined sound systems and plenty of space to stash a lunchbox and Thermos of coffee. As I peered out the floor-to-ceiling windshield, I began to wonder if a career as a groomer might be in the stars for me.
“If the operator is comfortable, you’re going to get more productivity,” Gruber said.
Groomers at Crested Butte Mountain Resort go to work after the stars pop out. Fourteen of them rake the mountain with a wide-toothed comb nightly to keep the ski runs in good shape. The job takes a high tolerance for repetition.
“This goes out in some of the most extreme weather known to man,” Gruber told me, patting the seat of the $500,000 piece of machinery that gets the job done.
Besides the usual array of foxes and coyotes, groomers sometimes spot more unusual wildlife, including bobcats and the occasional inebriated and naked late-night skier. (Yes, it happens.)
The Prinoth 500 rumbles along at speeds up to 12 miles per hour. It has no brakes, and a joystick with eight buttons controls the blade that pushes snow. The windshield, mirrors and wipers are heated. An articulated hitch outfitted with tillers trails behind the rig, raking those perfect ridges in the snow.
Mileage? The Prinoth 500 sucks gas at a rate of 12 to 14 gallons per hour.
As Gruber worked his thumb over the joystick, the front blade alternately rose, lowered and tipped to either side. Then it was my turn. I clambered into the driver’s seat, worried that somehow I’d drive the rig into a snowbank or rip off the front blade.
The two levers on my left controlled speed and direction. I eased them forward and the machine lurched to life. As I rumbled like a steel triceratops down a track stomped in the white, I noticed a huge roll of snow forming in front of the blade.
Ooops, that’s not what I meant to do. Gruber chuckled at my mistake, gamely telling me I’d created a nice terrain feature for expert skiers.
About that time Erica Reiter, taking the class on another snowcat, rumbled by, pumping her fist.
I circled the track a few times, practicing raising and lowering the shovel and trying to smooth out the snow. It was harder than it looked. I even plowed into some untracked powder, just to see how it felt.
In the end, I ground to a halt, a zigzag trail of less-than-perfect corduroy in my wake.
“I’m proud of you, you brought it back in one piece,” Gruber said. As for that job, though? Apparently I’m out of luck. “Chances are if we’re short a driver, we’re probably not going to give you a call.”
If you go: Cost for the Snowcat Driving Experience is $199. Must be 18 years or older, with a valid driver’s license. For more information go to www.skicb.com. To book call 970-349-4554.