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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Friday ó February 6, 2004


Fresh morning
look requires
all-night grooming

Boulder Mountain prep well under way

Express Staff Writer

The men who maintain the cross-country ski trails for the Blaine County Recreation District are vain about their grooming. Nearly an obsession, they are up at all hours working to perfect a look and feel that will be appreciated in the morning.

"Itís extraordinary. We have dedicated staff who have been with us for years," said Trails Director Shelly Preston. "They really care about their work."

In preperation for the Boulder Mountain Tour, Blaine County Parks and Recreation District Nordic trail groomer James Coyle cleans ice from a Pisten Bully tiller before his last pass grooming a southern section of the North Valley Trails under moonlight at midnight, Wednesday. Express photo by Matt Furber

Piloting four Pisten Bully snowcats, some of them aged and a bit rickety, is a team of eight drivers. The snowcats clatter away on aluminum treads and are used seven nights a week, tested with 800 operator hours every season, said Trails and Parks Supervisor Jim Mayne.

The groomers work nightly to renovate the snow on the 140 kilometers of trails in the system that include the Quigley Canyon Nordic trails, the Wood River Trail between Bellevue and Ketchum, the Lake Creek loops and the North Valley Trails, north of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters.

The North Valley Trails comprise 100 kilometers of the total system. Grooming is completely funded through user fees and donations. The area is where the Boulder Mountain Tour, a 33-kilometer Nordic skiing event from Galena Lodge to the SNRA is being held this weekend.

The groomers are hard at work prepping the course. The latest report is that it will be fast.

"Everyone has their own grooming style," said James Coyle, a seasonal Alaska fisherman and five-year valley grooming veteran. "Scott Thorne does the final groom for the Boulder. He can make the nicest ski trail Iíve ever known. Skiers donít always realize the quality they are getting. We try to avoid leaving soft spots. You donít notice them until your $200 carbon fiber pole goes through the snow and breaks in half."

Most of the groomers are avid skiers themselves and take pride in a buffed surface.

"I like to ski before work," Coyle said. "I like my job. It gets me up north in the mountains."

Groomers are rugged individuals working mostly in the dark during off-hours for skiers. They do what they can to control the frailties of man and machine, but weather is the biggest factor in a job with hours scheduled by Mother Nature.

"I thought I was going to be starting at 1 a.m.," Coyle said just before midnight Wednesday while working on a section of the meadow by the Harriman Trail, between Murphyís Bridge and Cathedral Pines Camp. The five-kilometer section looked buffed and smooth.

As Coyle drove, he dropped the front-end blade for his third pass to disturb the hard snow and get air into it. Snow pealed up off the blade as he shaved off the surface packed with day old ski tracks and dogs prints. The tiller on the back of the cat aerated the field to leave a textured finish.

Under the textured base are a series of manmade snow bridges built over rivulets in the meadow. As Coyle took his last pass over the snow a pan that sets the classic track is hydraulically lowered. When the snow is loose and creamy it leaves a crisp, clean track.

"Two cats canít groom everything in one night on the North Valley Trails," Coyle said. "We try not to leave any of the trails ungroomed for more than a day ... it is a huge demand for these two cats. This cat has about 5000 hours on it, itís like a car with 100,000 miles that you drive on dirt roads."

The groomers are constantly juggling the changing conditions so skiers have fresh corduroy to ski when the sun comes up, Mayne said. "They are weathermen. They have to be able to look out the window and make a judgement about when to groom."

"Communication is also awkward for the groomers," he said. Once they get around the bend at the SNRA they loose cell phone contact.

"If I break down out here, I have a coat and a hat and Iíll be walking to the highway to look for a ride home," he said.

But abandoning his rig is the last thing he or Mayne want to see happen.

"Jim does maintenance, logistics and scheduling," Coyle said. "The county takes good care of us, but they operate on a tight budget. Jim was on his back eight hours working on this machine today getting it ready for (the Boulder Mountain Tour)."


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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.