The headlights glared off fresh snow as Ron Robinson piloted his snow groomer to the mountain precipice.
Then, without hesitation, he drove it off the edge.
“Here we go,” he said.
The vehicle tilted nearly vertically, like a roller coaster headed down the first dip in the tracks.
“I wouldn’t come down here on a pair of skis. No way,” said Robinson. “I’m much more comfortable here in my machine.”
It’s a wild, Disneyland-type ride for the uninitiated. But for Robinson, 45, it’s just another night’s work at Schweitzer Mountain Resort.
When skiers pack it in for the day, the resort’s crew of groomer pilots take over the mountain. They hop in $250,000 machines, flick on the spotlights and reshape the mountain of snow overnight.
“After skiers trash the slopes we go out and make ‘em nice for the next bunch of people,” said Robinson, who has driven a snow cat for nine years. “People complain if they don’t see that corduroy out there.”
Tillers on the back of the machine leave a soft packed trail called “corduroy” while a steel blade in front flattens snowdrifts and fills low spots.
Robinson works the steepest runs with the winch-equipped groomer. Other drivers nicknamed him “Hangman” because of the way he dangles off the mountainside in his machine, a 2,000-foot trail of taut cable behind him. The cable is tethered to a steel piling sunk into the mountaintop.
“Dropping off the edge of the mountain is still a bit of a rush for me,” Robinson said. “It took some getting used to, but after you’ve done it for awhile it becomes routine.”
Schweitzer’s fleet of six groomers runs from dusk till dawn, molding 300 acres of terrain each night. Drivers spend 10 to 12 hours alone in the high-tech machines seated in an airplane-like cockpit of lighted gauges and joystick controls.
Drivers communicate by radio and have stereo systems in the cab to keep them entertained.
“It’s a fancy toy for big boys,” said Mike Joseph, a six-year snow groomer pilot, known as “Cat Savage.”
“I’m addicted to the machine. That’s why I do this,” he said. “When I was a kid I always wanted to be an astronaut. You kind of feel like one in one of these machines, driving all over the mountain at night in a snowstorm.”
The groomers drive through blizzards and fog to make sure the mountain’s skiable the next morning.
“When you are in a bad storm it’s like driving a submarine - you can’t see a thing,” Joseph said. “I’ve been lost a few times but you can always find a landmark to get you back on track.”
“It can get pretty hairy out there,” added Brad Boyce. He’s been a groomer for 20 years and is in charge of the Schweitzer crew.
Sometimes, the snow groomers will free-fall on soft snow, sliding uncontrollably several hundred feet down the mountain, Boyce said.
“There’s no time to get scared, you just hang on and ride it out. It’s actually kind of exciting.”
The drivers have never rolled one of the machines, but Robinson was stranded at midmountain recently when the steel cable on his machine became tangled. Boyce had to cut the cable to free the machine and then drive it down the steep terrain.
“It was a little tense,” he said. “That steep stuff will get your adrenaline flowing.”
When the resort offers night skiing, groomer pilots worry more about hot-dog skiers than sliding off the slopes. Joseph shut down his snow cat after he saw an out-of-control skier headed toward him. The man wrecked, slid around the snow cat blade and into the metal tracks. The skier was unhurt but scared.
“He was lucky I wasn’t moving. Those tracks will cut you into 4-inch slices,” Joseph said. “Some skiers don’t have any respect for the machines, and they try to follow too close.”
The groomer drivers say their job is part technical, part art. It’s a challenge to run all the gadgets, work at night in blizzard conditions and still sculpt an ideal slope.
“I relate it to taking care of a golf course, except we have these nice snow machines to drive instead of a lawnmower,” Boyce said.
Robinson is the only groomer driver who doesn’t ski. He has no urge to start.
“I still get some of the best views on the mountain and I get to stay warm,” he joked. “Besides, I just love being outside at night with the wind howling by and getting to play in a big fancy machine.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
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