SANDPOINT – “Don’t be alarmed,” says Mike Joseph, the grooming supervisor at Schweitzer Mountain Resort.
Seconds later, his 18,000-pound snowcat is lumbering down a 36-degree slope, the sheer descent slowed by a winch tethered to a pole at the top.
This is a stomach-dropping ride when the snow is fresh. But tonight, traction is good. The snowcat moves deliberately down the mountain’s popular Kaniksu ski run, its blades fluffing packed snow into imitation powder.
Groomers like Joseph are saving the ski season at Schweitzer and other local resorts.
Warm, dry weather has left the hills with meager snowpacks this season. With half the normal accumulation, the nightly maintenance is critical.
Snow hasn’t fallen in more than a week at Schweitzer. Every morning, however, skiers and snowboarders find freshly laid tracks. The tracks are evidence that Joseph and his crews were out all night, smoothing stockpiled snow over protruding rocks, disking crusty surfaces, and taking Disney-esque rides down black-diamond slopes in their rigs. Under the snowcat’s churning blades, icy ruts disappear into the softly padded “corduroy” stripes favored by skiers.
“This year, it isn’t Mother Nature. It’s basically Mike and his crew,” said Sandy Chio, Schweitzer’s marketing director. “They’ve allowed us to be up and operating in one of the worst seasons ever.”
Other resorts concur.
“The consistent comment we’ve heard all season is, ‘Boy, I don’t know how you did it with the snow you had,’ ” said Stephen Lane, Silver Mountain Resort’s marketing director. “Groomers are the unsung heroes. You don’t see them. They work in the night, under crazy conditions.”
Joseph’s shift begins at midnight, when he climbs into a Bombardier Snowcat with a thermos full of coffee. After 15 years of grooming, he knows Schweitzer Mountain intimately.
That knowledge is critical during whiteouts, when the snowcat’s headlights struggle to penetrate the storm. This season, however, blizzards are in short supply. Joseph is more worried about damaging the $200,000 Bombardier on rocks.
The Kaniksu run, for instance, has 4 to 5 feet of snow. Big boulders lurk beneath the scantily covered slope.
“This will be the last time for this one until we get more snow,” Joseph said regretfully, as the Bombardier climbed up the slope with the help of the winch.
It’s not quite 6 a.m. The moon is still bright, though a yellow glow can be seen over the Cabinet Mountains to the east. Far below, city lights twinkle in Sandpoint.
Joseph savors the solitary beauty of the winter night. A dark spot on the snow materializes into a strutting grouse. Earlier this week, he spotted a moose under Chair 4. Snowshoe hares are common, and a flash of white on white usually signals an ermine.
The ferret-like creatures are nearly invisible against the snow. “They move so fast. You think, ‘did I really see it?’ ” Joseph said.
Radio contact is his only companion during the shift. Most nights his crew consists of three to four groomers. Each is responsible for covering about 50 acres of terrain on the mountain.
Under ideal conditions, the groomers would have several inches of fresh snow to manicure each night. But Joseph has few complaints about the current snow, which he describes as “carvable,” compared to the “bulletproof” slicks that every groomer dreads.
“This is actually magical snow,” Joseph said. “I don’t know how it has lasted as long as it has. It’s still pretty good skiing.”
Grooming is really a science, said Phil Edholm, president of Lookout Pass Ski Area. Compacting the snow reduces evaporation, helping to preserve it. “Aerating the top few inches gives you that powdery surface that’s so nice to ski on,” he said.
The resorts are still hoping for a few big storms in March. For personal and professional reasons, Joseph is too.
“I’m a powder skier,” he said, “and I’ve got a new pair of racing skis that I’m dying to try out.”