FRANCONIA -- At night, the lights from the snow cats glisten like little stars in the distance as they move up and down the dark mountain, grooming out the day's ruts or packing down fresh-fallen snow to lay down perfect corduroy for skiers and snowboarders to enjoy the next day. It's a job that's very important and ensures the safety and skiing pleasure of any visitor to any resort.
Grooming technology has changed dramatically over the years. The New England Ski Museum credits Virgil White of New Hampshire with inventing the earliest snow vehicle — two skis attached to a modified Ford. Now we have snow cats and winch cats for super steep slopes and icy and rugged conditions.
Groomers are the modern midnight cowboys. In their heated cabs from sundown to sunrise, they snake up and down the many trails grooming, pushing snow, or making a terrain park feature. Good tunes and a cup of coffee make the long shift pleasant.
I had a chance to take a ride in the winch cat at Cannon Mountain, with its heart-dropping 37-degree slope. We went down my most dreaded trail, Avalanche, and it was not bad at all. The beauty of the winch cat is its ability to attach to a secure anchor point at the top of the slope with a half-mile long steel cable that helps keep its traction.
Winch cat operator Wayne Natti has 30 years of experience.
"Grooming a foot of snow before the winch cat was challenging and on a trail like Avalanche, I could have to take pretty dangerous slides down the steep trails. It would take a long time, then the snow would harden up and be un-skiable the next day. It used to take 48 hours to groom Avalanche, but now we can do it in less than an hour," Natti said.
Operating the Bison X was Stephen Roberts, who has been grooming for about 20 years. He is a heavy machine operator during the summers and a ski coach/groomer during the winters.
"It's a bit difficult to learn the tiller and the blade to come out with a good pass," he said. "It probably took me a good five years to be really confident with it."
Roberts said he enjoys the solitude of grooming at night and being out on the mountain.
"The most challenging part is the weather," he said.
But the reward comes after spending a tough night on the mountain grooming. Roberts said "the most gratifying part is skiing the next day. I love skiing groomed snow ..."
Slopeside runs every Friday during the ski season. Kathleen Humphreys can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.