They come out at night and do their job. You can see their lights progressing across the ski slope and occasionally hear their roar. And the next morning, they’ve left this delicious set of corduroy tracks across the ski hill.
I’d always wanted to go on slope with a snowcat groomer. And, so, at Sun Peaks Resort, located in the mountains of British Columbia north of Kamloops, I did.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You want to see how the groomers do their job.
- You want to see the slope in the dark of night or, later in the year, at rosy dusk.
- Hey, it’s heavy machinery. How very cool.
- Or maybe you don’t ski but your family does and you would like to see just what the mountain up there looks like.
- Good for skiers and non-skiing family and friends.
Scott Thompson, the groomer, picked me up in his $280,000, 200 horsepower machine at 6 pm, two hours after the ski slopes had closed. As we ground our way up a blue (intermediate) run, he explained that the blade on front knocks down bumps and that nasty looking tiller in the back, which rotates at over 1,000 rpm, can turn even ice into something resembling powder, which is then shaped into that incredible corduroy by a mat.
Anyone who has skied freshly groomed snow knows what that means: snow that feels like butter and hero turns that make you look like a much better skier than you are.
At Sun Peaks, the seven grooming machines, basically powerful cabs atop tank-like treads with that blade on front and the tiller on the back, do every single green (beginner runs), half the blues and a few choice blacks (expert runs). Often, in mid winter, it then snows maybe six or eight inches, leaving ankle deep powder over a perfect surface. It’s like skiing your very own glacier, but that’s another story.
I was hoping to catch a glimpse of a winch cat at work. This is how the really steep runs are done. The cat is hooked onto an anchor point … a cement block or a really sturdy tree … and is basically dangled inch by inch down the slope. The steepest runs Sun Peaks grooming manager Seth Worthen said his winch cat can do are Challenger and Static Cling, both about 47 percent, which is steep enough to make you feel like you are sliding down a wall on skis.
Words of a Winch Cat Driver
Rob Gayman, grooming manager at Mount Hood Meadows resort in Oregon, once described it this way: “It’s somewhat like dropping off a cliff. At the top break-over as the machine teeters above the brink, your heart starts to palpitate and your natural survival instinct pushes you back into your seat. As the machine creeps forward and the operator adjusts the winch tension, the cat tilts forward into the darkness. The cat’s lights don’t shine down low enough – you can’t see what lies below. It tilts more and more. You start to fall forward out of your seat. Now you’re standing on the floor — surely this can’t be right? But then the cat finishes its forward tilt and the ground below you comes back into sight. It wasn’t a cliff after all. Snow rolls and tumbles down in front of the cat as the operator blades and tills his way downhill.
Alas, the winch groomer was elsewhere, so we continued grinding our way upward. And there, on the horizon, was another cat. Kind of like meeting a fellow whale in the ocean.
Finally, we got to the top. And the resort, the far off hills, the mountains, spread in front of us. Yes, you can see this while skiing but no, you usually don’t get to see this at dusk. Snow on the far hills had a soft dusky rose glow.
I got to thinking about folks who don’t ski — those who come with family members who spend their vacation reading or maybe on snow shoes or taking a sleigh ride but not really atop the mountain. What a great way for them to see the terrain their family enjoys. Perhaps it’s even an incentive to try it themselves.
And Then We Started Down
We started down, passing one more groomer, got to the base of Burfield Chair, made our way around it and then started up again, finally coming over one last hump before heading back to the main base.
And though the machine had growled and shouldered its way along as only a piece of heavy machinery can, there was a solitary peace to it all. You really do need to be a bit of a loner to spend every night throughout the winter making magic so next day, the hungry hordes can float down the slopes in bliss.
- Snowcat rides go out nightly but only two of the seven take passengers so make reservations early in your stay.
- You don’t need to dress like you are heading for the arctic. The cats are nicely heated.
- Bring a camera. You WILL want to take pictures.