One late evening recently, I spent a couple of hours with Brian Johnson, Lead Groomer at Deer Valley Resort. Brian took me for a ride in his snow cat and I while doing that, I learned quite a few things about weaving white corduroy during the hours the slopes have been temporarily deserted by skiers…
JF: How long have you been a snow groomer?
Brian: Twenty-five years; it’s amazing how time flies when you’re having fun!
JF: What do you do in the summer?
Brian: I work in construction, operating heavy equipment.
JF: Are you a skier?
Brian: Yes, I grew up in the Bay Area, but I learned to ski in the Sierras and began as an alpine and freestyle competitor before discovering Deer Valley.
JF: Does it help to be a skier in order to drive a cat like this?
Brian: Definitely! It helps understand what skiers need and want in terms of slope preparation and give us a much better understanding of how the snow feels, performs and the way it changes over time.
JF: Are all the other groomers skiers?
Brian: Yes, even though some of them no longer ski for a variety of reasons, most do. We pretty much have people who love the mountain environment, the snow and the ski industry. People who work with us have been doing it for a very long time and seem to come back to work with us, season after season. That means most of them have lots of experience, and still enjoy both skiing and grooming slopes. As a result, we rarely have to train new drivers and our new recruits are few. Most of them learn the job and generally stay with us, which is really good.
JF: How do you recruit and train your drivers?
Brian: Some have experience when they start at Deer Valley and others don’t. In both cases we train them to do the work, or if they already have experience, we train them to Deer Valley’s specific procedures and quality standards. It does take a long time to get very good and proficient at that work and training plays an important role.
JF: What makes a great snow groomer?
Brian: Experience and lots of it! Consider this: groomers can only do that type of work for about 22 weeks per year. With most professional trades it typically takes three to four years to become proficient. For a snow groomer, that translates into a full decade of work before one becomes perfectly skilled. That’s the technique then comes the art, when you consider an elusive material like snow. That’s right, snow is an amazing creation, it’s constantly changing, it never stays the same from the time it falls out of the sky; it remains in constant state of change and I guess that’s part of what keeps the job interesting.
JF: So there’s also an art in addition to a grooming technique?
Brian: That’s right. A groomer must understand where the snow is, where to find it during lean years, have a good eye for what needs to be fixed and so on. For a first-time groomer it’s essential to understand how the runs are laid out, especially at night. We never let new people groom alone during their first season, they always work with an experienced groomer.
JF: I see other snow cats working along with yours; do you always work in teams?
Brian: We’ll work in groups depending on the project and at Deer Valley, two cats working together is about the norm.
JF: How many drivers are needed for grooming all of Deer Valley runs?
Brian: To cover both shifts and days off requires about 30 people. We need a fair amount of personnel because we cover a lot of runs. Then, since conditions are everything and constantly changing, they always dictate how we will conduct grooming on any given night.
JF: Are there female drivers?
Brian: Yes, we currently have three female drivers with one of them being a Lead Driver on the graveyard shift
JF: In a typical night, how many runs does the team groom?
Brian: About 45 to 50, which is about half of the total number of marked trails at Deer Valley. We’re responsible for certain runs on swing shift because we want them to set longer overnight. We want the runs more durable during the day, especially on our high traffic runs. This applies to Bald and Flagstaff Mountains then our graveyard shift will complete the work and take care of all the lower runs and any other runs we can’t get to on the first shift.
JF: What do you mean by “setting longer overnight?”
Brian: It means letting the snow “rest” for a longer period; it makes for a much more durable skiing surface, which skiers really like. They feel more comfortable on a snow that’s consistent from top to bottom and get more enjoyment out of it. We call this “setup time” or “curing time,” from late afternoon until the next morning when the sun and skiers begin softening the snow surface and we start the whole process over again.
JF: How hard is it to drive a snow groomer?
Brian: First and foremost, it demands lots of attention. It takes time and experience to drive a snow cat. You must be looking everywhere, constantly. I look in my mirrors to see how the grooming is coming out of the back, I check my side-mirrors to make sure I have clearance on both sides; I look across at all of my front plates, how I’m cutting the surface in front of me. Your eyes are constantly looking in all places and behind you after you groom for a fair amount of times; it comes automatically. You’re just looking everywhere to avoid objects, to make sure your sidelining looks good and to see what needs to be adjusted as you go along.
JF: Do you run into wildlife when you work at night?
Brian: We see lots of it. Of course, it depends on the type of winter or snow fall patterns we’re having. Some animal will stay at different altitude depending on the snow conditions. We often see deer, moose, and many different birds, like owls. We have our fair share of coyote and occasionally we’ll see a fox.
JF: Over the years, how has grooming equipment evolved?
Brian: It has come a very long way. It’s been the result, I guess, of constant interaction between us, (the groomers) and the machine manufacturers. The manufacturers often come to see us, ride with us, and ask us how their equipment performs. We both interact and see how we can improve things. Manufacturers also come here to test their new products because they value our reputation, the way we work and the product quality we want to provide to our guests. In turns it helps them in refining their product, from cabin comfort, to overall reliability of the machines and grooming performance.
JF: What’s steepest run that you groom?
Brian: That would be Stein’s Way, is has an 88% grade! Generally groomers from other resorts that visit us never fail to be impressed by how steep the runs we groom are!
JF: How does a fresh snow fall impact your work?
Brian: Just like when you ski, new powder makes the work much more fun! We look forward to grooming when it’s snowing. Of course, the snow cats won’t climb or descend as well in new snow. We must be particularly careful when we’re going down: The machine can slide and the operator needs to control that slide. I find it to make our job much more challenging and fun!
JF: Have you told us all the secrets behind Deer Valley’s legendary “corduroy?”