News Staff Writer
WILMINGTON — It’s 5:45 a.m. and a Snowcat groomer is lurched up the side of Lower Mackenzie at Whiteface Mountain. It lights up the dark trail, climbing through blankets of falling snow with the rumble of a 400-horsepower diesel engine. In its wake, a fresh corduroy pattern is etched into the snow pack.
Ryan Blanchard sat upright behind the controls, his arms stretch to either side. He held a joystick in his left hand, constantly flipping switches and pushing buttons with his right.
“It’s more than just driving,” Blanchard said, feathering the joystick. “It’s operating.”
Originally from Saranac Lake, Blanchard has been grooming trails across the slopes of Whiteface for three years. He became a groomer after working the night shift as a snow blower for two years prior.
The cockpit of the Snowcat was a warm 75 degrees. Blanchard adjusted the brim of his hat and rubbed his eyes. His shift began at 9 p.m. the night before, but he hardly showed signs of fatigue.
“Right about now is the time I usually get my second wind. When the sun starts to come up it’s like starting a whole new day,” Blanchard said. “People think it’s crazy, but I don’t mind the hours at all. It’s nice having my days free.”
When the conditions are to his liking, Blanchard usually grabs a pair of skis and hits the mountain for a few runs after he gets off work around 8:30 a.m. With a fresh cover of powder on the slopes, it looked as though Monday would be one of those days.
The forecast said scattered rain showers across the region, but the snow was thick coming down in white-out conditions as we scaled up the steep trail just before sun rise.
“I can’t believe this snow,” Blanchard said. “That’s what I love about it up here, you never know what you’re going to get.”
A steel blade plow at the front of the Cat curled up snow like ice cream as Blanchard guided the machine up the slope. The blade leveled out snowdrifts while a tiller on the back smoothed out any loose chunks, leaving behind a fresh groom.
“We’re going to head up and take care of Wilderness,” Blanchard said. “Or as I call it, ‘Wilder-mess.’ It’s a real pain to groom.”
Metal tank treads on either side of the machine slipped and spun out through the powder.
“This is an incredible machine, built for the Arctic,” Blanchard said. “But the one flaw is that she doesn’t do so well in the soft stuff.”
The morning sun began to show a dull light through the clouds. Snow swirled in the lights of the Snowcat as we inched up toward the top of the Wilderness trail, shuttering from side to side. Before coming to a halt Blanchard pushed a lever and a large arm swung around to the front of the Snowcat.
“When we do these steep trails we use a winch,” Blanchard said. “It’s our lifeline.”
The winch — used primary for safety, but also to help the Snowcat climb — can hold 2.5 tons of pressure and pays out 2,200 feet of cable.
“Be right back,” Blanchard said, jumping out of the machine into knee high snow. He fumble around, pulling out a length of cable from the winch and attached it to an anchor sunk deep into a rock wall at the top of the trail.
After hopping back into the cockpit he aimed the Snowcat down the steep crest of the Wilderness trail and began the descent.
The Cat shook as it plowed down through the snow, forming the trail into a fast skiable surface. Blanchard sat back, focusing and making subtle adjustments to the shape of the blade and pressure of the tiller before reaching the bottom.
“We call the winch the yo-yo,” Blanchard said, as he turned the Snowcat on a dime and headed back up toward the top.
After several passes and a few interruptions to cover up bare spots and mistakes, Wilderness was looking good. It was 8 a.m. and as the temperature rose, the snow began to soften up.
When asked about how to deal with the slush of the spring ski season, Blanchard said “it’s all about using what you have.”
“We usually close off trails that don’t have enough cover, and push around snow to where it needs to be,” Blanchard said.
He drove the Snowcat down toward the base lodge, which was beginning to come to life with the early morning ski rush.
“They’re starting to swarm,” Blanchard said, looking off in the distance at a row of cars approaching the lodge.
“Guess it’s about time to go ski.”
Spring time skiing
According to mountain manager Bruce McCulley, Whiteface plans on closing on April 12 unless the conditions permit staying open longer.
Trail groomers play an important role in maintaining ski trails throughout the ski season and keeping the slopes open during the spring. Pictured are, Richard Bouyea, department head of grooming, Ryan Blanchard, Fred Hozley and Chris Lashway after a night of grooming trails at Whiteface Mountain.
Photo/Richard Rosentreter/Lake Placid News