WILMINGTON - At night there are no skiers or snowboarders on the slopes of the Whiteface Mountain Ski Area. But there is still plenty of action happening on them.
On Friday, Feb. 24, with snow steadily coming down, Snowcats were busy grooming the trails of the mountain, and the Lake Placid News was on hand for a ride-a-long with one of the drivers who rides the slopes nearly every night of the week during ski season.
My ride for the night was trail groomer Ryan Blanchard. As I climbed into the cat, I quickly realized that my "gear" of gloves, hat and coat were not necessary in the machine's cabin, which was toasty warm. With a welcoming "Are you ready?" from my mountain chauffeur, I was ready for the mountain. According to Blanchard, each groomer can go for about 5 and a half hours before needing to refuel, so I knew we had some quality time on the slopes ahead.
A Snowcat at the top of Upper Skyward at the summit of the Whiteface Mountain Ski Area after a night of grooming and as the ski begins to lighten at the start of a new day. Note the winch at the top left.
Photo courtesy of ORDA
At approximately 9:40 p.m., we hit the slopes.
On the mountain
Just above the base lodge, I quickly began to lose my sense of place, and asked Blanchard if he ever got lost on the slopes at night. He said it took some getting used to at first, but now he has no problem navigating the slopes to get his job done.
"Once you do the mountain for a while, you know where you are," he said. So, I felt confident as we began our ascent to the summit.
Blanchard said he is one of five trail groomers who work at the mountain and they begin their night around 9 p.m. and work right until the sun rises over the High Peaks, with their shift ending at 8 a.m.
"I've got some great photos during the morning," he informed me. "It's really spectacular."
Blanchard, who has been a groomer for five years and employed at Whiteface for seven, said he jumped at the chance to become a trail groomer.
"It's a great job and it doesn't open up very often. One guys been doing this for 20 years, and he loves it," he said.
Blanchard said he loves the freedom of working at the mountain in the middle of the night with no one around, and he is typically on the mountain five or six days a week. Due to the hours, he said he doesn't lead what some would consider a "normal" life.
"Any type of life you had previously is over," he said. But still, he said it's a great job and he loves it.
As we ascend the mountain, I can pick out some spots I know from the trail signs. My ears pop as we go higher, a few times getting pretty close to the slope's edge.
"Has anyone ever slid down the side of this?" I asked my pilot.
"Yeah ..." he said.
I cut him off before he could go into further details of tree branches going through windows.
"Let's not talk - or think - about it," I quipped. And we climbed further toward the summit and the grooming assignment at hand.
The assignment for the night generally is given before the groomers hit the slopes, but sometimes each driver just knows by job experience what trails to hit during the night.
"We know what trails usually need to be groomed and some guys just work a usual section," Blanchard said.
But not all trails get groomed each night, according to the ski area's General Manager Bruce McCulley, who explained some of the grooming strategies on Monday.
"Some trails we don't groom very much at all because people like moguls on them. If you didn't groom any of the trails, they would all be mogul trails, there would be bumps all over them," he said. "There are certain expert trails that we don't groom on a regular basis because some people like ungroomed terrain."
Generally, open trails that will be used the next day by skiers and snowboarders are the ones that get groomed, he said. And every night can bring a different grooming plan.
"Some nights they may choose not to groom a trail if it's real windy. If it's warm when they come in, they may wait a few hours, or they may try to do upper mountain trails first if it's cooler up high. So they have a different plan every night basically, but in the end, most of the same trails are groomed daily."
Crowd flow and weather are also a determining factor in what trails get attention. According to Blanchard, those two factors are two of the most challenging aspect of his job.
"The wind will blow the snow off the trail and we're back to square one," he said. "And the toughest job is after a busy day at the mountain. When we hit the trails, there are bumps all over the trails. That takes a lot of work to flatten."
Flattening out the ski surface helps pack the snow, making it better for skiing the next day, Blanchard explained.
"Skier traffic and changes in weather both require that trails get groomed," McCulley said. "That way you have a nice surface for skiers in the morning. If you don't groom a trail than a trail that is really easy to navigate can be a harder trail to some people because some people don't like bumps."
The groomers are impressive pieces of machinery, and at an cost of more than $300,000, they are a main force in keeping skiers and snowboarders happy with the best terrain possible. And for the most part, people who enjoy the mountain have never seen a Snowcat up close let alone ridden in one. Most of the grooming is done at night, as due to safety concerns, the mountain generally doesn't operate cats on the slopes when people are skiing.
McCulley explained some of the features of a Snowcat and its drivers.
"Basically, they (Snowcats) have a blade in the front that levels things out and a tiller on the back that tills snow up and lays it down like a nice carpet and then it has a drag that leaves a path behind it," McCulley said. "It kind of looks like corduroy."
"Some of the machines actually have a winch on them that helps groom the steeper slopes. It's a cable that hooks at the top (of the trail) so the machine doesn't go flying down the mountain uncontrolled," McCulley said. "The cable helps them climb up and down steep slopes without losing traction."
And the drivers must know what they're doing on the mountain.
"They're equipment operators, so they know how to run very expensive, complicated grooming equipment. They are mechanically inclined and a lot of them are skiers and riders, so they know the mountain," McCulley said.
It's quite the experience being at the top of Whiteface in the middle of the night as the snow is flying - almost like being on the lunar surface with little to see but bumps and darkness. The flying snow and lights of other groomers that pass occasionally add to the eery space-like effect.
The warmth inside the cab of the Snowcat is deceiving on this night as we hit the mountain's summit. Snow is flying as we exit the cab and Blanchard shows me the hook on the cat's winch. The wind and snow is whipping. Looking at the edge of Upper Skyward, the white snow disappears into the black of night. After a few photos, we're off to groom more trails as Blanchard chats about his job.
"Sometimes the wind really gets whipping up here," he said, as he navigates the groomer down Paron's Run. As we head toward John's Bypass, the groomer slides a little on the icy surface. Going downhill can be tricky sometimes, he informed be, but the ice isn't the surface that creates the most sliding.
"We actually have better traction on ice rather than deep snow," Blanchard said. "As weird as that may sound, that's the case."
Most of the trails on the mountain on this particular night are covered with about six inches of fresh power, which Blanchard said is ideal for snow grooming.
"When it gets deeper, the snow gets stuck in the treads and it's not as easy to get traction," he said.
In the spring time the snow gets really soft, making the cat more likely to get stuck, Blanchard said. But tonight, we had no problem getting through the terrain. After a momentary hesitation, he admitted that on occasion, some cat drivers have gotten stuck in their vehicles.
Getting stuck in the snow is one thing, but the most embarrassing thing that can happen to a groomer on the slopes, according to Blanchard, is running out of gas. He laughed and pointed at "the big gauges that warn a groomer that he is low on gas."
He said because of the sophistication of the machinery, gassing up on the mountain and restarting the vehicle is no easy task. A driver has to call for help, and then deal with the "friendly" ribbing from his co-workers about the ordeal of running out of gas.
"It happened to me once," he said, adding that he learned his lesson, and it hasn't happened to him since.
It's now getting close to midnight and a call comes in to Blanchard's radio requesting he give the race trails some attention.
Blanchard said that it groomers must pay special attention to the trails that include the race course, which are used mainly for
NYSEF races. And the upcoming week includes the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Alpine Skiing Championships - so an extra effort is required. As we hit the trail, Blanchard's focus is evident - he stopped answering questions. We spent time packing down Draper's Drop, which is part of the race course. Then, he takes a moment to explain.
"They (racers) don't want the snow on the course," he said, adding that the racers prefer a hard surface to ski on. "Regular skiers would really enjoy this fresh snow, the racers don't."
A quiet satisfaction
Once Blanchard is satisfied that his effort on the race course is sufficient, we moved on to another trail. And we flatten and move several piles of snow. According to Blanchard, part of the grooming process is pushing the snow to the side and redistributing it as the ski season moves along into the spring months. And one of the thing the Snowcats do best is moving snow.
"That's what keeps the mountain open in the spring," he said.
McCulley echoed that thought. "It's (grooming) is vital to the operation of the mountain."
Blanchard said at the end of the day his primary goal is making sure that the trails come out good for skiers and snowboarders.
"No one likes to be going down a trail at 40 miles per hour and hitting an uneven groove," Blanchard said. And he knows he did a good job when after a trail has been groomed, there are no grooves between runs. "I know it's good when a trail is like one big carpet."
When morning comes, a snow groomer either goes home, or takes the opportunity to get some ski or snowboarding runs - and Blanchard enjoys snowboarding. He gets his reward not only in pay for the job, but the feeling he gets when he is snowboarding and riding the gondola and hears positive comments about the trails.
"I'll be riding the gondola and it's nice to hear people talking about how well-groomed the trails are," he said. He doesn't say anything to them, but says to himself "I made that happen."
Overall, on Friday night 44 trails were groomed, and Whiteface has a total of 86 trails.
"I notice a lot of the local people are here and know they are enjoying the skiing. It's a great feeling," he said, adding yet another reason he takes his job so seriously. "I ski here too."
My ride came to an end at 1:30 a.m., but Blanchard's night continued - but first he had to fill his Snowcat up with fuel. I'm not sure if the gas light in the cab was flashing - but he's probably not taking any chances.
contributed to this report