A snow groomer on Big Mountain (Dave Reese photos)
BY DAVID REESE/MONTANA LIVING
The nocturnal beasts emerge from their dens at sundown, just when the last skiers are making their way down Big Mountain.
Following a path of light thrown out ahead of them, the groomers crawl slowly through the trails and trees, leaving perfect seams of corduroy.
Like the wizard behind the curtain, Jef Elliott sits inside the cab of one of the beasts — a 350-horsepower Prinoth grooming machine — his fingers and thumbs doing all the work. With a slight dial of his thumb, the groomer surges up a steep hill. “There’s more power here than we’ll ever need,” he said as darkness blankets the Flathead Valley. We crawl slowly up Big Ravine, a popular run on the front side of the mountain. His joystick control looks like a Playstation; with the touch of a green button a 16-foot blade on the front of the groomer twitches this way and that, allowing Elliott total control over how the slopes will look when skiers arrive in the morning.
His job combines power, finesse and knowledge of the nearly 4,000 acres of terrain on Big Mountain. They are skills acquired through 15 years of grooming — and he’s one of the short timers. Groomer Jeff Gerber has been there nearly 25 years.
“It’s the best job on the mountain,” Elliott says.
The first shift of groomers works 4 p.m. to midnight. Then the graveyard shift arrives, often working until the chairlifts open to put the final touches on the night’s work. “They’ll drive until it’s done and there are no loose ends,” Elliott said inside his cab.
In this job it helps to be a skier — to know how the mountain is used, to know where snow is needed.
Fellow groomer Mark Albsershardt can’t seem to get away from the snow.
In the last 14 months of grooming snow airports in Antarctica and Greenland, he’s been on dry land only four weeks. On Tuesday night he was at the controls of a groomer; not making runways, but laying down fresh corduroy for the next day’s skiers and snowboarders. Right behind him was Lori Fisher, one of the resort’s newest grooming recruits. She spent years on the snowmaking team before getting the nod to join the grooming team.
Often working in tandem or three by three, the groomers put the snow back where it belongs — on the trails — after it’s pushed around by hundreds of skiers and snowboarders each day. They leave seamless corduroy for shredding the next day.
Problem is, some people just can’t wait for the next morning to ski those lines. On Tuesday evening, several hikers were inching their way up Big Mountain and would soon be descending on the freshies that Elliott and the other groomers just laid down.
This is akin to stealing a cookie from mom’s oven before they’re ready. But worse. The hikers often bring their dogs, which leave their calling cards across the white, freshly groomed slopes.
It’s a problem that, Elliott says, is getting worse. Skiers who arrive the next morning and catch first chair expect to find those lines perfect, so it aggravates Elliott that people can’t wait until morning to hit them.
“We’re starting to see more and more people in our headlights,” Elliott said. “There are a lot of people in the valley coming up here to exercise and it’s gotten a little bit out of control. People who get here for first tracks expect corduroy and don’t understand if it got poached the night before. That’s at the top of our job description: to provide a durable and safe surface to ski on.”
On Tuesday night Elliott, followed by Albershardt, crawled their groomers in tandem down North Bowl. We dive off Fill Slope, that windblown section near the Summit, where it’s often congested and the snow is poor. This year, snow fences installed along the right edge of the run are helping snow drift onto the run. Elliott pulls some of this snow away from the fence, outward to the run, where Albershardt picked it up and laid it down.
When we reached Elevator, the well-used knoll where skiers and snowboarders launch, Elliott slowed down. Here he took his time, using the wide flippers on the front blade to pull snow out of the nearby trees and smooth it down toward the jump’s landing. “I can always take a little snow out of this hollow,” he said, working the controls and pushing the large curl of snow in front of him.
“We don’t want to change the feature of the jump,” he mentions, “so people jumping it today will know what to expect tomorrow.”
We pass places with names that often only the groomers, locals or ski patrol recognize; places like Ridie’s Bump, or the Black Hole. Driving through a narrow stand of trees, our headlights illuminating the white forest, we make a turn under Elephant’s Graveyard. Elliott plows out a trail for skiers so they can access Russ’s Street. As we head back up Moementum, toward the Summit House, the wind picks up. Suddenly we’re in a stormy alpine environment. The signs to East Rim are barely visible through the blustery snow. At the top of Moementum, whaleback ridges of snow have already piled up since the skiers have been gone.
Conditions can change quickly in this job, and the groomers have to flexible in how they approach their work. Storms or a mechanical breakdown can put even the best-laid plans to rest, Elliott said. “The graveyard has to be able to ad lib and change their plans according to how the night goes.”
You learn about snow. How it moves and how it feels under the machine.
Albershardt, in his 11th year as a groomer, said grooming is “a good way to see the mountain and what it takes to maintain the slopes for the public.
“We see it at 4 miles an hour instead of 40 miles an hour.”
Elliott often looks out the rear window to make sure his motorized tiller is set properly and the lines of corduroy are nothing less than perfect. “That’s where the ‘money’ is,” he said. “The tiller’s the one that does the job.”
Some types of snow are harder to work than others — like the wet stuff that’s sitting on the lower half of the mountain now; this snow tends to bunch up and push out to the sides of the machines. Speed control here is crucial; by driving a bit faster, it helps the groomers avoid making unsightly ruts.
One of the most heavily used runs on the front side of the mountain is Big Ravine. On the way down the Big Ravine Tuesday night, Elliott worked his controls and his gauged his speed closely as he took just the tops off the narrow moguls with his front blade. He watched intently out the back window as the tiller chopped up the moguls like shredded parmesan. But the snow here is only about 18-20 inches deep, challenging the groomers’ skills. Elliott concentrated on his work: “This is just a couple of mistakes from being all dirt,” he said.
Off to the side, on one of the uphill passes he’s already made, a skier has poached one strip of corduroy. “That’s not too bad,” Elliott said.
It’s a temperature-controlled environment inside the cab of the groomer, and music plays softly. Despite these comforts, the job can have its dangerous aspects. If you’ve ever skied Gray Wolf road and peeked down to the right, down into Black Bear, you recognize what a wrong turn here can make.
Grooming this narrow road in a storm can be treacherous. There’s a rock wall to the left, and the 60-degree Black Bear run to the right; “To find the wall you have to touch it with your blade,” Elliott said. “You can’t just go charging in there; you have to have your game on.”
Each autumn, when the white pennies from heaven begin to fall on Big Mountain, Elliott starts getting pumped up about driving. After 15 years inside the cab, the Columbia Falls native still finds the work challenging. You have to.
“There’s a million ways to groom this mountain,” he said, “and we’ve only begun to explore the possibilities.”