That groom matters.
When do you notice the groomed runs? Is it when you’re screaming down a slope at highway speeds in complete confidence that the slope will be consistent and smooth? Or, since for many of us the thrill in skiing lies in the life-long quest for sweet, sweet powder, is it when you find those runs in-between, the catwalks, and the traverses that are always predictable and allow us to rest our legs out as we prepare for the next steep line?
But alas, once upon a time such a groomed life wasn’t the norm (gasp!). Our parents (and their parents) had a much different experience skiing. If you hate bumps, be glad you live now and not then. Or maybe you’d be a better skier? Hard sayin’. Either way, let’s talk about the progression of grooming and how they gave us the runs we love so much today.
Where to Find the Best Groomers
In case you want to just get to the goods, here are a few classics to think about next time you find yourself with a need for speed:
Andy’s Encore & Collage – Copper Mountain, CO
Both of these runs snake the 6-pack Super Bee lift on the east side of the mountain (the left side if you’re looking at a trail map). These are long, steep, and are usually wide open so you can have that “oh shiiiit” moment without actually crashing or anything terrible like that.
Calamity Jane – Big Sky, MT
Okay, you might be going to Big Sky for the epic cliffs and steeps, but what if they’re not open or skiable? What if the snow sucks? Well you can salvage your day by cruising down Calamity Jane, a big rolling groomer that has plenty of rollers and side hits to satisfy.
Golden Eagle – Beaver Creek, CO
One of the classics – try catching this one right after it has been groomed, and you can live out your World Cup dreams (be sure you have the edges for it though. We’re not kidding–this one is steep)
The Old Rollers
In the olden days, resorts didn’t just not groom. Ski areas of yore used agricultural rollers to pack down early-season snow, providing a base for future snowfall, but this came with a caveat–the surface of the snow would often become icy and dangerous no matter what was done. At this same time, skiing began to grow in popularity and in order to accommodate the larger number of (inexperienced) skiers hitting the slopes, early ski areas were pressed with a problem: how can we make this chundered up ice fest as safe as possible?
Well, we can thank the late Steve Bradley, an employee and the first executive director of Winter Park. In 1951, Bradley devised a packer/grader that now bears his name–The Bradley Packer. The plow-like contraption weighed about 700 pounds and a skier was expected to “go straight down the fall line, depending on the blade for speed control”, in front of the device. OSHA would have had a field day. A team of human groomers would careen down the mountain in V-formation, taking the T-bar back up the lift when they reached the bottom. So, when your grandpa says “we had it harder in my day”, maybe don’t scoff. Here’s a video to show just how ridiculous this was.
Bring On the Cats
However, this trend couldn’t go on forever and the skiing world needed to advance. Enter: the snowcat. The first snowcats were developed for arctic expeditions around the turn of the 20th century, but it wasn’t until the Bradley packer came around that the machines were used in keeping the slopes groomed.
The prospect of hitching the packer up to a protected, enclosed, self-powered machine
certainly seems more appealing to me than doing it all manually. The technology has grown since, to the extent that snowcats are responsible for practically the entirety of grooming/hill maintenance (though on a powder day, you still might see a ski patroller stamping down snow with a side step, another thankless task!). For particularly steep slopes, the cat may be anchored via a winch, which would explain how professional downhill race courses get to be as absurdly steep as they are.
Most modern resorts have a fleet of snow cats that prowl the mountain well into the night through the next morning, and at $300K, these snow cats aren’t a drop in the bucket for ski resorts. Considering the number of cats most mountains employ (for example, Vail has 30 cats which equates to a cool $9M), some lift ticket prices might start to make a little more sense. (But yeah right, never pay full price)
The next time it’s not a powder day, try to find some of that sweet, sweet corduroy and appreciate all of the toil that our ancestors went through to provide us with a smooth riding surface.