Story and Photos provided by Joe Stevens
Hello everyone –
I think we can all agree that the 2022-2023 season would not have happened if it wasn’t for the snowmakers that tour the slopes of southeast ski resorts. But it’s one thing to make the snow, but without another group of mountain operation folks, all we would have would be lots of piles of snow.
This week we take a look at the group of heavy machine operators that handle getting slopes ready for every skier and snowboarder that visit southeast ski resorts. We know them as the “groomers.”
Yesterday (Saturday, March 18, 2023) I was able to make some “Product Evaluation” turns at Timberline Mountain in the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia.
Let me stage the scene a bit. As you may know, I have been around this industry in some form or fashion since 1985. Taking that into consideration, I have experienced what I can call variable slope conditions a day after a resort receives a considerable amount of rain, oops, I mean underdeveloped snow.
Meaning, unless temperatures drop into the 30’s, the surface can be a bit choppy, as your skis and snowboards, if not nicely tuned, will be making a lot of chatter traveling across the terrain.
At Timberline on Friday, it pretty much rained the entire day. The forecast called for temperatures to drop into the low to mid 30’s, but the question for the groomers was just when it was going to happen and how much of the terrain they would be able to get to, before the ropes dropped.
I checked the temperature around 5:30 am and it was 22 degrees and thought this was promising. I even stuck my head out the door to see if the snowguns were running? They weren’t.
Long story short, the surface we found was, may I just say, perfect, knowing full well what the groomers had to deal with getting them that way. If I hadn’t known it had rained on Friday, I would’ve just thought things were just the same old thing and that’s the groomers were doing their thing to make it fun for everyone to enjoy another day of skiing and snowboarding in the southeast.
Job well done guys!
To follow up on this week’s theme of a shout out to the grooming crews across the southeast I sat down with Tom Price, Timberline Mountain’s General Manager to pick his brain about just how important grooming is to the ski industry. Full disclosure, Tom got behind the controls of groomers at resorts around the country before being named the lead guy at Timberline Mountain.
Everyone knows how much of a challenge this season has been for the mountain operations crew in the southeast and Tom was clear about the importance of the guys who push the snow, “There are a lot of pieces to a ski area and grooming is one of the key pieces to the chain. Of course, you need good snowmaking so that the groomers have something work with, and the groomers need to be able to rely on the snowmakers to provide them a product to push around to cover the slopes.”
This season, every resort has taken advantage of just about every second of snowmaking opportunities that a fickle Mother Nature has provided. You probably noticed piles (or whales) of snow off to the side, not directly on the slopes. Tom told me this was by design, “Everybody has different slope coverage philosophies, but I think everyone takes advantage whenever they can make snow, and if they can stockpile some snow to be used on those rainy days, that’s what they do. We are actually still using snow we made a couple of months ago, pushing it in the spaces that we need it now.
There are probably a number of skiers and snowboarders who just don’t understand that when you push snow when the temperatures are in the 40’s and 50’s a large amount of melt occurs, which takes away from the slope coverage.
This is where Tom says skiers and snowboarders just need to understand, “The science of how snow interacts with the weather, the skiing public, and with the grooming is very complex to says the least. We had a few days this season where the skiing public moved the snow around more than the groomers did. Everyone just needs to know that everything works in concert and it’s critical to have a good grooming staff that understands all of the possible variables. Go out on the slopes, see what needs to be done, and do it in the most efficient way possible.
After everything is prepared from the day’s onslaught of skiers and snowboarders on the slopes, I had to know from Tom what it was like for the groomers to step back and understand what they accomplished, “First off there is a sense of jealousy, because we want to be out there ourselves, but it’s awesome to see the smiles on the faces of the visitors who are experiencing those first turns of the day. It’s probably only second to snowmakers are groomers in the amount of compliments from people coming in after their initial turns of the day. Most of the skiers and snowboards know that grooming happens all times of the night, day, weather, it’s a job that takes a ton amount of work and dedication because it is so unpredictable.”
There has been a lot reported about the millions of dollars invested in snowmaking at resorts throughout the southeast. Tom told me that you can add grooming into the infrastructure cost also, “Groomers anymore cost between $400k and $500k for a new, modern groomer and they don’t last forever, so it is and always will be part of future plans of Timberline Mountain.”
So, the next time, probably next season for most of us, you step on the slopes for those first turns of the day and you are on a nice corduroy surface, give a tip of the hat to the guy or gal who has been preparing what is underneath of you to play on that day.
That’s it for this week, again thanks for joining me for my weekly ramblings. Just remember whether it be cold or whether it be warm, we’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather will be. Be safe and “Let Gravity Be Your Friend.”