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A Day in the Life of a Groomer

by Gabrielle Martin

Skiers and shredders know that powder is the Holy Grail of snow sports, rivaled only by sweet, smooth corduroy. We also know that there’s very few things better than carving fresh turns on a perfectly groomed trail, but have you ever thought about what goes into the maintenance of terrain at your favorite mountain resort?

Cord credit goes to our tireless team of Sugarloaf groomers, and today, we’ll be bringing you a behind-the-scenes look at a day on-the-job. Groomers are talented, team-oriented individuals who are passionate about corduroy and responsible for providing high-quality snow surfaces using specialized equipment—snow and winch cats—to maintain trail conditions.

Glossary

  • A snow cat is an enclosed, truck-sized, fully-tracked vehicle designed to move on snow surfaces.
  • A winch cat is a snow cat assisted by and mounted with a cable attached to a steel pole at the top of the slope; Sugarloaf is a big, steep mountain, meaning many of our trails require a special winch cat to groom. Check out this Vimeo for a visual with second-shift team member Buster working in a winch cat.

The grooming department’s fleet consists of 2 park cats operated by STP, 8 trail machines (3 of which are winch cats), and 2 utility cats.

Photo by Maine Drone Imaging.

Team members must be able to efficiently and safely operate their machines using a combination of creativity, experience, and judgment to accomplish their goals each shift. Perks of the job include driving a large, fascinating machine, knowing that our guests not only appreciate but enjoy their work, and, since they work all night, they’ve got time each day to ski. 

The first shift runs from 4:00pm to midnight, and the second shift runs from midnight to 8:00am; most nights, there are five to eight groomers on first shift, with five to six crew members clocking in for second. “Both are very different crews, and very different experiences,” says Mountain Ops Administrative Assistant Nicole Pineau.

Today, we’ll be tagging along on first-shift with Grooming Foreman Kody Noyes.

Kody on an early-season groom, taken November 20, 2021 by Maine Drone Imaging.

21-year-old Kody has spent four years in the grooming department, serving as foreman for the past two seasons. He’s currently on first shift; during the days, Kody is a full-time college student, attending courses entirely online and pursuing a degree in business administration and management with the University of Maine.

I was out-the-door of the back exit of the Admin building a few minutes before four o’clock, on the way to meet Kody in the maintenance garage; once inside, I circled up with several groomers who were chatting as they received trail assignments, often accompanied by a detailed diagram, from Kody.

This was the first time I got a first-hand glimpse at the camaraderie of this crew. “Such a good group. They become family,” Kody tells me as we leave the break room to board the winch cat. I clumsily climb up onto the tracks, and after admittedly having a little difficulty figuring out how to open the door, I was able to heave and hoist myself into the passenger seat in a series of flailing motions.

The interior of the snow cat is actually incredibly spacious; a common misconception–one I shared–was that groomers worked in cold conditions, and no doubt they do, but the interior of the cat is entirely heated, and I mean “entirely,” from the operator’s seat to the lines running through the windows to prevent freezing or icing on the panes.

Kody uses his radio to connect with Ski Patrol, who are in the process of concluding sweep, in which they make sure the mountain is clear of any skier or rider traffic: “Packer 23 to Ski Patrol.” Everyone in mountain ops has a name they use over the radio; Kody is Packer 23.

Once Patrol gives the go-ahead for the groomers to head to the hill, Kody communicates this to his crew on their station, Channel 1, which is also used by snowmaking. And then we’re off, up the work road onto Lower Tote, where the climb begins: steadily and surely we make it up Chicken Pitch with a little resistance, which Kody maneuvers with ease all while answering my many questions.

As we begin our ascent, I learn he grew up in a snowcat, with close friends operating them and often accompanying them for ride-alongs. “I learned how to run it, and here I am!” He says with a laugh. “There’s not a lot of 21-year-olds that are running a winch cat.” All I could think was that I, as a 23-year-old who has never operated a car larger than my trusty Prius (and one who learned to drive south of Boston at that), was very glad to not be driving the cat.

Not that operating the cat is really comparable to a car; for one, it’s completely controlled by the operator’s left and right hands–there’s no foot pedals involved in the process. The left-hand side drives, while the right-hand maneuvers the blade, its wings, and the tiller too; overhead, there’s a spotlight that can be used to survey the trail. 

For another, you have a front-row view with the cat’s floor-to-ceiling windows. As we breach the top of the pitch, Kody says, “It’s only half the battle to learn how to run the machine, the other half is mental: the best way to groom the trail, the way you push the snow.”

“You can teach people how to run the machine,” he continues, “But it’s so situational, every time we're out on the hill, it’s different. Snow conditions are always changing depending on the temperature–the consistency changes. It’s all a battle,” he tells me (as we literally have just finished an uphill battle).

“It’s not something you’re going to learn overnight,” Kody summarizes.

As Foreman, Kody conducts the majority of the training within the department, which he says begins with a ride-along; for 3 or so nights, the trainee will accompany Kody on-hill to shadow a shift. Then, they will begin to operate the cat themselves with Kody supervising and teaching them the ropes.

“Kind of driver’s ed?” I ask.

Kody nods. “Yes, like driver’s ed! Ultimately, it’s a three-step process: first, new team members must learn how to drive the cat, which is a good portion of the battle. Then the blade takes a while, and the tiller is the last—it’s the most complicated, as it’s what leaves the cord.”

This year, the grooming department has 4 new team members, 3 of which work first shift. “I always tell them, ‘Don’t just drop it and forget it, we’re not mowing the lawn!’” Kody jokes.

And just like mountain ops team all has radio names, in addition to government names and nicknames, they also have nicknames for different parts of the trails; Kody explains this to me as we pass through what’s known as “the Rock Garden” on Tote Road just before we veer off onto Pinch Cross Cut on our way to King’s Landing.

“I credit all my knowledge to all the senior groomers here,” Kody says as we arrive at the “anchor point” at the very top of the trail. This is where he’ll connect the winch cable–but first, he uses the blade to remove several inches of snow in front of the anchor point to avoid walking through knee-deep snow.

Kody parks and hops out with two flashing red lights in-hand, which he places on either side of the trail as a safety procedure, signaling to other on-mountain staff that the cable is out. He also radios that the cable is out before we begin our descent down.

I’m in disbelief to learn we’ll be using one cable that will reach all the way to the bottom of King’s Landing; I assumed we’d be doing the trail in portions. And, like tree skiing, I learn you have to pick your line when using a winch cat–assume a strategic route, or “snake the cable,” as Kody calls it.

I was struck by the combination of creativity and strategic spatial awareness required–each motion is incredibly calculated and still so easily maneuvered, placing this weird juxtaposition between the delicacy of creating pristine corduroy and the sheer power of the machine moving hundreds of pounds of snow.

Of course, Kody is a natural who makes it look easy, like he’s tilling a giant zen garden instead of climbing a mountainside in heavy machinery.  As he puts it, “It’s a very unique job. You’re hanging off the mountain at night in a very expensive piece of equipment.”

Time management is also an essential skill, as each groomer must independently complete their trail assignments by the end of each shift. Team work is equally important, as the crew is in constant communication over the radio, chatting and sharing music in addition to giving advice and offering input when troubleshooting uncertain situations from afar.

As Foreman, Kody regularly provides support for fellow team members on first shift.

Now, in doing content collection and snow reporting this season and last, I spend a lot of time on King’s Landing. It’s a personal favorite of mine for photography because there’s always something sending it through, CVA kids to park-bound people heading to Stomping Grounds, old-school Loafers and the like; however, from my passenger-side seat in the snow cat, the all-too-familiar trail transformed into a completely alien landscape after dark.

“See the trees there?” Kody says, stopping to point out my window as we round the first bend. “You can see where the winch cable rubs against the tree; these trees act like stoppers and allow us to bend the cable around corners.” I squint and catch sight of portions of the bark stripped bare. He also explains that’s why some trees on skier’s right of the bends on King’s are significantly smaller: cut short by the cable.

In addition to having successfully “snake the cable,” groomers also have to take caution on trails with snowmaking and winch cables to avoid the snow guns while simultaneously always being aware of the cable, where its going and how much pressure it’s receiving.

“The winch cat moves snow the opposite way skiers do; we want to move as much snow as possible.” Kody explains, moving our way to the middle of the trail. This is his method: heading to the middle for the first run down and seeing what areas need resurfacing or reshaping. We go backward and forward with ease, moving snow from skier’s left of the trail (where snowmaking takes place) and redistributing it.

Descending the final pitch of King’s Landing in a winch cat for the first time felt similar to what I imagine the it’d be like to drop down the highest pitch of a roller coaster in slow-motion: adrenaline-pumping, gravity-defying, stomach-dropping fun. When we reach the bottom—where King’s Landing meets Candyside—I let out a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding in.

Kody parks the cat and we get out to inspect the different components of the tiller.

By this point in the evening, the mountain was cast in a faint blue tone, embracing the last traces of dusk; it was quite the contrast to the flat, gray light from earlier that afternoon.

The more I learn, the more questions I have.

As we begin to climb back up King’s, I learn more about Kody’s responsibilities as Foreman. For one, he explains how he must consider the abilities, strong suits, and machine proficiency of each team member to make the most efficient schedule that best utilizes everybody’s skills, giving the example that Casey Bowden, one of the longest-working team members within the grooming department, was working on Narrow Gauge because he was in contact with the people running the upcoming races to be held there while Jackie Lastinger was tackling Bridle Chain and Timberline because she was there the previous night and knew where the snow was. 

I begin to understand the department’s methods, like how first shift tries to tackle terrain from Gondi West to leave the East side for second shift, as it’s considerably easier to close off the King Pine Bowl or Whiffletree area in event of a grooming hold compared to central mountain. Or how the Birches are build and reconstructed night after night to have a slope that will assist and guide beginner skiers and riders towards the Moosecalator.

Photo by Maine Drone Imaging.

So many of us who love to ski or ride regularly daydream of corduroy—I know I do—but I think very few of us realize the intensive operations that go into creating the cord we crave.

With King’s Landing close to complete and Hayburner still to do, Kody begins our climb up King’s to Peavy Crosscut, where we’ll meet Jackie, who will be dropping be back at the base.

During this last stretch, Kody says that his favorite type of snow to groom comes after a powder day or a long weekend, after the mountain has been thoroughly enjoyed. “I love to ski,” he shares enthusiastically, adding that it’s especially enjoyable to test the product he groomed the night before, so if you see Kody on the slopes, be sure to say “hey” and thank him for the killer cord!

By the time we meet Jackie (roughly six or so) it’s become completely dark out, and even the oh-so-familiar trail Tote Road looks close to completely unrecognizable; we catch sight of tiny rabbit tracks crossing Pinch just before Double Bitter in the spotlight and smooth them over, leaving seamless cord in our wake.

This is Jackie’s second season working in the grooming department, which she switches over to from snowmaking after their operations slow down for the season. The grooming department works hand-in-hand in snowmaking; read “A Day in the Life of A Snowmaker” here.