Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Mountain groomers offer a Beastly ride

Snowcat operators manicure about 1,560 acres nightly

Express Staff Writer

The Beast grooms snow on the Ridge ski trail high on Bald Mountain Friday night. Photo by Willy Cook

From rock tour roadies to ghostwriters, the world is brimming with unsung heroes. However, it might be tough to find a group of behind-the-scenes types who enjoy and take as much pride in their work as Sun Valley Co.’s reclusive crew of snowcat operators, whose nocturnal, artful grooming of Bald and Dollar mountains puts smiles on the faces and corduroy snow under the feet of the mountains’ daytime downhillers.

Grooming Manager Kerry O’Brien said his crew grooms about 1,500 acres of terrain on Baldy and 60 acres on Dollar every night. To accomplish that feat, the resort employs seven snowcats on Baldy for two eight-hour shifts each and two snowcats on Dollar for two shifts each as well. According to snowcat operator Jack Seagraves, the resort’s snowcat fleet is composed mainly of $285,000, 19,643-pound, 355-horsepower Prinoth Bison snowcats. However, since the 2010-11 winter season, the resort has added some beefier machines to its roster. Those are the Beasts.

The resort operates two $425,000, 25,460-pound, 527-horsepower Prinoth Beast snowcats, the second of which joined the fleet last year. According to Prinoth’s website, the Beast model sets the industry’s benchmark for grooming productivity. Beast operator Jeff Dent said a Beast can do the same amount of work during the course of one shift as two Bisons.

The Idaho Mountain Express accepted an invitation to witness the Beasts’ abilities under the enthusiastic, yet masterfully steady-handed operation of Dent and Seagraves, who have been manicuring the resort’s runs since 1975 and 1976, respectively.

“Hopefully this thing works,” Seagraves said as he fired up his Beast and a throaty growl resounded from underneath the hood.

“As you can see, they’re just about as wide as the garage bay doors,” he added as he inched backward and the machine’s grooming tiller (which lays down the corduroy texture or “magic carpet” as the groomers also call it) and blade (which allows groomers to push snow where they want it) barely passed through the bay’s oversized, overhead door.

Seagraves said the resort will replace each Beast after only three years of service because each machine gets worked for so long every winter season.

“We put about 2,000 to 2,500 hours a year on each Beast,” he said. “That’s six to seven thousand hours in three years. That’s a lot for one machine.”

Seagraves said the behemoths burn about 70 to 80 gallons of diesel per shift, which costs $300 per night per Beast.

“We’re laying down some corduroy now,” he said proudly as he put the Beast in forward gear and began to creep up Lower River Run at about 5 mph. “These machines are just amazing.”

Seagraves said the Beast’s top speed is about 10 mph, but that’s too fast for grooming as the machine gets a bit shaky at those speeds.

“The goal is to get the corduroy to line up straight when you’re connecting your passes,” he said. “Many people don’t understand the amount of care it takes to manicure these runs.”

Seagraves said each groomer generally grooms the same runs each night so they become familiar with them. He called this “signature grooming” as each operator grooms each run with his or her own personal flare. However, he said that to keep the runs flat, it’s important to use a slightly different grooming pattern every night.

“I’ve got a great office,” he said as the Beast crested the top of Lower College under a fuchsia, though quickly darkening sky. “You can see the lights of Ketchum, there’s no one out here, and you get to look at your end-product and say, ‘Wow! I did that.’ I have the same reaction every day.”

Brennan Rego:

Want to ride the Beast?

People who would like to check out the Beast’s abilities themselves can to do so through the resort’s Ride the Beast program, now in its second year. Resort spokesman Jack Sibbach said people can sign up at the resort’s Recreation Center in the Sun Valley Mall or at the River Run Day Lodge. A weekly drawing will be held to decide who gets to ride. Sibbach said people can ride Friday and Saturday evenings until the Roundhouse Restaurant closes for the season. He said riders will get to attend that day’s grooming meeting at 4 p.m., then  ride the beast for up to the full shift

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