Taming the Mountain - A Groomer’s Life
By Jay Lloyd
White Haven, PA – December 2005 - The moon is riding high over Elk Mountain in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the night air is crisp, some would say freezing. But Mike Barhite is warm inside the cab of a giant snow groomer, crawling on Caterpillar treads toward the top of “Tunkhannock”, one of the toughest ski trail on the mountain.
Instinctively, his hands are constantly roaming over the levers that adjust the multi-angle blade in front of the headlights and the tiller behind. The tractor breaks up the crusted snow and moves it to where it’s needed, while the tiller smoothes it out into a corduroy surface.
Clear across Pennsylvania, at Seven Springs Mountain Resort, Bill Cavalcante is also piloting a grooming “Cat”, but his conditions aren’t so bright. The snow farmers have the entire arsenal of snowguns blowing, and the only light cutting through this man-made blizzard is the high beams of his groomer. But the way Cavalcante, a veteran mountain man sees the job, “The snowmakers are the bakers of this cake and I’m the guy who puts on the icing.”
Late night and the early morning hours are the transition times between the moment Ski Patrollers sweep the trails for stragglers, and shortly after dawn when the first skiers of a new day are ready to carve fresh tracks in pristine snow. Since most Pennsylvania ski areas keep the runs open under the lights till 10pm, that doesn’t leave much time to cover miles of terrain with changing contours and dangerously steep pitches.
And the prospect of danger is always part of the job. It’s the veterans who tackle the toughest trails. Ron Crozier at Liberty Mountain in central Pennsylvania is always aware that in icy conditions or powder, these large machines can and do slide sideways. The edge of the trail and a sudden drop can be waiting for the operator who lets his mind stray. Ron says, “You always have to be conscious of the edge, not get sucked into powder and you have to think about safety first.” But Bill Cavalcante notes, “After years of experience you get to know the mountain like your own house where you can find your way through a room in the dark. On the mountain there are always the outlines of familiar landmarks like trees and the pitch of a slope.”
Liberty’s Crozier views the job as “an art form”. The goal is to create the perfect surface while guarding against “voids” that appear when one pass of the groomer is separated from the previous pass, leaving a “wind row” of ice or crud. Cavalcante tries to keep the snow on all the trails, including the toughest, consistent by “overlapping runs, even though it takes more time.” The Seven Springs groomer says, “I’m always thinking, is this something I’d want to ski on?”
That’s the end line. The conditions crafted by the groomers become the prize that greets the skier and snowboarder making those first tracks in the morning. And snowboarding is the trickiest part of the process. Terrain parks have unique contours for very unique maneuvers. Ron Crozier says, “You always have to be thinking about that rider who gets off the ground and into the air.” At Liberty, there’s usually an experienced boarder in the cab when it comes time to trim up the park.
Greg Irvin is one of those young groomers who has been around terrain parks since they were first planted in Pennsylvania. At Camelback Mountain where he pilots a modern “Half-Pipe Groomer” he reflects on the painstaking and intricate work involved in “building landings and takeoffs to exacting industry standards.” Greg notes, “It takes a lot of patience and sometimes hours moving at a crawl just to reshape a 350-foot half-pipe after a day of hard use.” Working alone for 6 hours in the terrain parks, Irvin considers the complexity of sculpting the jumps and snow around the rails – the very elements that charge the excitement in boarding. He concludes, “It’s a great job.”
The steepest trails provide some of the greatest challenge for skiers, riders and the men who groom them in the dark of night. At Elk where “Tunkhannock” with its commanding view by day is one of the most challenging slopes in the state, Mike Barhite, pushing the “Cat” up that headwall realizes that it demands all his attention. “Some nights, he says, “I feel the hair on the back of my neck raise slightly and a quiver in the machine tells me I might be heading for trouble.” That one trail alone can take a groomer 3 hours to get it right. And getting it right is the goal.
Grooming strategies often depend on conditions. Some moonlit nights, when the sky is clear and the snow is crisp, the machine can be driven right up the slope. But on those rainy, “soft snow” nights, the men piloting them have to take detours, going up the easier trails and then down the steep ones. And there’s always that deadline. Be off the mountain before the morning skiers arrive. Crozier
quips, “Skiers and machines just don’t mix.”
As dawn arrives and the first cars begin to line up at the base lodge parking lot, there’s a feeling of satisfaction among the men driving their groomers back to the barn. Mike Barhite reflects on the quiet of night with the snow drifting slowly in the headlights and then he notes, “There’s nothing like sunrise on the mountain. It’s a great job.”
For additional information about PSAA or our member resorts, visit our website at http://www.skipa.com or contact our office:
Linda Irvin – PSAA Ex. Director
5142 State St., White Haven, PA 18661
570-443-0963 * 570-443-0388 FAX
MEMBER SKI RESORTS
Alpine Mountain, Bear Creek Ski & Rec Area, Big Boulder, Blue Knob Ski Area, Blue Mountain, Camelback Ski Area, Crystal Lake, Ski Center
Eagle Rock Resort, Elk Mountain, Hidden Valley Resort, Jack Frost Mountain, Liberty Mountain Resort, Mystic Mountain at Nemacolin, Seven Springs Mountain Resort, Shawnee Mountain, Ski-Big Bear, Ski Denton, Ski Roundtop, Ski Sawmill, Snö Mountain, Tanglwood Ski Area, Tussey Mountain Ski Area, Whitetail Resort.