As a skier, I’ve always wondered what goes into maintaining Deer Valley Resort’s ski runs once the snow has melted. I know they don’t just stay great season after season on their own, but improve as a new winter ushers in. I’ve been told that Laura Sexton, Trail Crew Leader, and her peers from the resort’s Trail Crew hold the key to the on-going care and improvements that take place on Deer Valley ski runs, during the off-season. I stopped her as she was on her way to work and she shared a few of her secrets with me…
JF: Laura, someone told me that you are the reason why Deer Valley’s ski runs are so well maintained and so fun to ski on; how long have you been doing this?
Laura Sexton: I’ve been working with Deer Valley Resort for 23 years, year round.
JF: Year round? What do you do in winter?
Laura Sexton: I’m a lead groomer
JF: So you pilot one of these powerful machines that leave the famous “corduroy” behind?
Laura Sexton: I sure do and I love it!
JF: I’m impressed! How did you become lead groomer and trail crew leader?
Laura Sexton: I grew up in Iowa, and it’s also where I learned to ski. One day, Deer Valley stopped in Dubuque on one of their recruiting tours and afterwards advertised their need for employees. I saw the ad, we met, I talk to them for four hours and the following week I had a contract in the mail!
JF: Another wonderful Deer Valley career story, but enough said about winter. What are your responsibilities once you’ve parked your groomer for the off-season?
Laura Sexton: During the summer we take care of our six mountains; we handle erosion-control, seed, follow-up on noxious weed abatement, take care of what demands attention all-around, run heavy equipment, clip the “whippers” out on the skis runs. The list goes on and on…
JF: What kind of heavy equipment do you use?
Laura Sexton: Deer Valley has loaders, backhoes and a track-hoe, so we use that equipment to move rocks, dig water bars or do whatever needs to be done.
JF: How are you keeping the mountain so clean? Do you have a systematic clean-up process for debris and trash at the end of the ski season?
Laura Sexton: It’s part of our system. Wherever we go in our travels across the mountain, we always pick up garbage where we see it. Late June, however, we also have special weed-abatement and trash pick-up day. On that occasion, all Deer Valley employees from all departments come out and spread out on the mountain to clean it. Everyone pitches in!
JF: How long do your summer assignments last?
Laura Sexton: We generally wrap up around mid-October, just before the first snowfalls.
JF: How do you handle run maintenance? Do you rotate runs season after season so no one is left behind?
Laura Sexton: There are some runs that take a little more effort than others, but yes, we rotate run maintenance whenever possible. If we do weeds, we try to rotate the areas we’re working on according to their growth cycle so they won’t grow too fast and take too much effort to eradicate. Usually, when we clip the “whippers” out on the ski runs, we try to hit all the black and blue runs in priority.
JF: Clipping the whippers is of very high interest to me because I often get intimidated by these early-season creatures. I heard that you have a special mower for cutting them?
Laura Sexton: Last year we purchased several mowers. There are some oversized lawn mowers that attach on the front of a Bobcat, these are chain-driven implements that can cut through the wood. That being said, the trail crew still has to cut most by hand, especially on steep and hard-to-reach terrain.
JF: So, for the most part, what are these plants that are considered “whippers”?
Laura Sexton: Mostly aspen shoots, elderberry or anything that sticks up over one-foot tall, including small pine trees that are less than 2-inches around. Whipper management is a big deal. We probably spend a good four to five weeks cutting them…
JF: Which runs get most of your attention?
Laura Sexton: We try to go everywhere. We always do the Empire Bowl area although we haven’t done the Daly Chutes for two years now, as we don’t get to some of that steeper terrain every single year…
JF: How do you cut those twigs?
Laura Sexton: We do it by hand, with loppers; we do all the Mayflower runs every year, Nabob, Birdseye, then other areas like Perseverance Bowl every other year…
JF: How do you handle re-seeding grass on ski runs?
Laura Sexton: We re-seed in the fall, before the snow comes. We work in areas that were either dug up or disturbed, or are simply not taking grass well; in that case, we’ll bring in some top soil to seed over and start to regrow. We use a mountain mix with nine different grasses in it, like fescue, wheat, rye, timothy… There’s also a little bit of annuals grasses in the mix that shade and protect the growth of perennial species.
JF: I know that Deer Valley Resort is known for its generous blanket of natural or man-made snow and rocks never seem to be visible and are never an issue, but how do you remove them from the runs?
Laura Sexton: We have a rule of thumb: When we’re on the hill for any reason, if we see a rock that is bigger than a fist, we throw it off the run!
JF: Are you sometimes re-grading certain runs?
Laura Sexton: All of our ski runs have been engineered and on many of them, their shape and profile are not random at all. It’s only occasionally that we bring some modifications on certain runs to make it easier for guests to access them or when they need to modified for some special purposes, like for drills by the ski-school.
JF: Besides trimming “whippers”, do you do any special work on rough terrain and double-diamond runs?
Laura Sexton: We have a special, five person saw-crew that spends a lot of time glading certain areas, like Centennial Trees for instance. They’re also taking down fallen trees stuck in trees tops so they don’t create a hazard for skiers…
JF: How do you minimize erosion?
Laura Sexton: All of our ski runs have water bars on them to route the water around the sidelines, slowing the path of running water and avoiding wash-out in the middle of the runs…
JF: Is wildlife ever a problem on trails?
Laura Sexton: Not at all, we see a lot of wildlife around here; we see moose, elk, deer and lots of smaller rodents as well. They don’t create any problems at all. We even have a black bear in the area that makes an appearance every-once-in-awhile. One year he even came right through our maintenance shop!
JF: Does Deer Valley’s extensive summer trail network bring some extra challenges for you?
Laura Sexton: We have to work harder at times to create water bars when we need them, particularly when trails cross ski runs. Mountain bike and pedestrian traffic also promote weed travel around the mountain as tires and shoes tend to disperse them around.
JF: Now that you are bringing up the subject of weeds, I remember that you mentioned a specialty of yours is the eradication of noxious weeds from the Deer Valley Resort. Can you tell us more about it?
Laura Sexton: In Utah and in Summit County a number of imported noxious weeds have been taking over the natural species for quite some time. Not only that, but there are some of these weeds that are actually poisonous to cattle and humans as well. There’s a list of 22 state and 31 county noxious weeds. Since 2010, property owners are obligated to eradicate them from their land; if they don’t, they will be cited for it and the weeds will be removed at their expense.
JF: How is it humanly possible to accomplish this on more than 2,000 acres that covers Deer Valley Resort?
Laura Sexton: It’s a huge job. I have maps of all of our properties; we record all the different types of weeds we find in different areas. We keep a log of what we spray, of what we pull out, etc. We can’t control everything at the same time, but we manage it in the best possible manner. To avoid the use of herbicides, we try to use bio-control as much as possible; this procedure uses certain specialized bugs that will eventually kill the noxious weeds.
JF: So what are your “most wanted” of these weeds?
Laura Sexton: I’d say Garlic Mustard is the top offender. We also have a large variety of thistle around the area that we must take care to remove. There’s also Dyer’s Woad that is particularly challenging. As soon as this plant flowers, it must be pulled out immediately. It is filled with “smart seeds” that will wait a year or more before germinating. We also have Dalmatian Toadflax, but the list goes on and on and if you’re interested, you can see them at summitcounty.org/weed/
JF: I’ll keep an eye out for these, and I’ll bet that Deer Valley guests will too. Thank you Laura for working so hard on behalf of all of us!