Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Night crawlers

When the skiers leave, Sun Valley groomers are just starting their day

Express Staff Writer

With Sun Valley looming in the valley below, a snow cat navigates the upper reaches of Bald Mountain. Express photos by Trevon Milliard

Kevin Klepser pushes the fingers of his left hand forward just a couple of centimeters, ever so slightly moving the two knobs at the end of the armrest. A pair of 4-foot-wide treads below the Sun Valley snow groomer begins to turn, urging the vehicle to the edge of a snow-covered road cutting across Bald Mountain's upper Limelight run. The road is flat, but Klepser heads straight for the black-diamond slope plummeting down at about 40 percent grade. To put that into perspective, the Galena Summit section of state Highway 75 descends at 5 to 6 percent grade.

The plow at the front of the groomer reaches the road's edge but the groomer still sits flat on the road, balance maintained. And then the front of the cabin peers over the edge, but the 18,000-pound groomer still perches atop the road, Klepser not able to see any moonlit snow in front of him. Even with a windshield from floor to ceiling, the ant-sized lights of Ketchum are out of sight a couple of thousand feet somewhere below. He's looking at a panoramic starless sky, no sign of any ground below.

The balance breaks and the behemoth leans forward—a moment of 18,000-pound weightlessness.

Out of the black appear the lights of Ketchum, first seen at foot level where the windshield starts. And as the groomer falls forward, the city lights ascend toward eye level.

The treads slap into the snow. The groomer accelerates down the steep slope, the plow breaking through waves of snow as if it were the bow of a ship cutting through a rough sea.

Klepser doesn't rush to slow the machine but allows it to settle in, relying on his 25 years of experience and a 7/16-inch diameter cable tethered into Bald Mountain hundreds of feet above to keep his speed in check. He calls it a "controlled slide."

He says Limelight is one of the steepest and toughest slopes to groom on Baldy and requires a "winch cat" equipped with 1,000 meters of cable weighing 3,400 pounds. A winch controls the cable's speed. Klepser says the treads are doing less than half the work of keeping the groomer from barreling down Baldy's face—the cable is critical.

"It's a real dance between the two systems," he says.

Sun Valley Resort has three winch cats. The five other drivers on the shift drive "free cats," relying solely on their treads to stick to the mountain.

"There's no way you could do this in a free cat," he said. "We'd be in the trees busted into a hundred different pieces."

Nevertheless, his winch cat unexpectedly became a free cat earlier this week when his cable broke.

"If the cable breaks, there's no stopping it," he said, adding that in that situation he must keep the cat going straight down the mountain and "use every trick in the book." He said turning it sideways would rip off one of the tracks, and should be avoided at all costs.

But cables have other dangers since the cats must work at angles of the anchor point as they track back and forth across the slopes. And if the cat's tracks lose grip, the cable will pull the cat across the mountain to the point directly below it.

"I have to go slow," he says. "Because if we broke free, we would pendulum to the right."

As the groomer slowly moves forward, snow curls over the plow and breaks forward, filling in troughs between 4-foot-tall waves of snow. In its trailing wake, the groomer leaves a flat, corduroy-like surface created by the tiller attached to its tail end. The tiller is made of a 17-foot-wide cylinder with protruding spikes and spins at 1,700 revolutions per minute, pulverizing the snow into a flour-like consistency. The snow is then slightly heated and pressed into the crusty corduroy pattern skiers are accustomed to.

To the left of the groomer is the placid surface Klepser has already passed going up and down Limelight run. To the right are rolling waves of powder.

The sea is unusually rough tonight because of more than 3 feet of snow that has fallen in the past couple of days. Skiers cutting turns have piled the powder into 4-foot tall heaps. The new snow puts extra pressure on Sun Valley Resort's 16-person-per-night groomer crew to catch up to the weather. Klepser and seven others work 4 p.m. to midnight, and eight others take over from midnight to 8 a.m.

That's 16 hours of work to prepare the mountain for seven hours of skiing. And it's repeated every night.

Usually, Klepser said, he's cutting corduroy into a calm, already compacted surface. However, tonight they're adding the new snowfall to the snowpack and strengthening its weak layers.

The seriousness of the situation was palpable at the routine daily meeting, which starts at 4 p.m. for the crew, with many holding cups of coffee. Groomer manager Kerry O'Brien told the drivers about a skier who died on the mountain the day before when he was caught in an avalanche below Fire Trail Lane, in the Seattle Ridge area.

"The snow's lifting up everywhere, and to the ground," said one driver sitting at the rectangle of tables during the meeting.

And, O'Brien said, the unfavorable conditions would stick around this season.

"Spread the word around," he said.

Klepser said the drivers take their job and responsibility seriously, many of them having driven cats for decades. Experience between the eight drivers sitting in the conference room ranges from four months to 40 years. It's not a glamorous job. And, Klepser said, not done for the money.

The work mangles their lives into awkward hours, especially for the graveyard shift, and the vast majority of time is spent alone in a dark cat cabin, connected to the world for eight hours at a time by way of only a CB radio.

"I have no social life," Klepser jested.

However, every night at 10 p.m., the drivers park their cats outside the Sun Valley Ski Patrol shack atop Baldy for "lunch" inside. Two microwaves and a popcorn machine are at their disposal, and a chance to step outside their boxes of glass.

Forty-seven-year-old Klepser is used to solitude. In the summer, he spends all but six days at sea fishing off the coast of Alaska with his crew.

But the cat drivers aren't the only ones up at odd hours to prep the mountain for skiers the next day. The groomers' mechanics never stop, day or night.

Mechanic Dub Mitchell said the $250,000 cats need "constant attention" every day since they operate under such extreme conditions, their 350-horsepower engines burning about 60 gallons of diesel every shift. That's about 960 gallons of fuel used every night.

Mitchell said that once the drivers are done at 8 a.m., a crew of three mechanics start working, and don't stop until the drivers return at 4 p.m. And a mechanic also stays in the shop at River Run's base throughout the night "to keep 'em going."

"Seven days a week, no vacations, no holidays," Mitchell said. "Just go."

A night of toiling precedes every single day the mountain opens to skiers. Just look toward Baldy's slopes any night, and the moving pearls in the sky will be proof.

Trevon Milliard:

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