As skiers and riders make their last turns down Cannon Mountain, some employees are just preparing to begin their evening on the mountain. At 3pm, the Mountain Operations team gathers for their daily meeting. Staff members from each department (Snowmaking, Grooming, Patrol, Lift Operations, Terrain Park, Events, and Snow Sports) meet to forecast the upcoming days at Cannon. Like any job, communication is key. "Everyone needs to know what everyone else is doing" for operations to run smoothly, stated Cannon's GM, John DeVivo. The unpredictability of Mother Nature makes it tough to plan even three days ahead so daily meetings are vital. Discussions consist broadly of where snow is being made to what events are coming up (Family Night and Professional Skier Patrol Association). Everyone's input in this meeting will soon be delivered to the media outlets of Cannon. It's amazing how 30-40 minutes of free flowing conversation can be conveyed so quickly to the public, providing instant access to current snow conditions, open trails or upcoming events. As one team member told me, the last mountain he worked at he never knew what was going on, this surely is not the case at Cannon Mountain.
By 4pm, lifts have stopped turning and grooming and snowmaking teams are ready hit the slopes. Energy and excitement fill the air (literally) as the arctic temperatures through the next few nights are going to be great for snowmaking. The relationship between low humidity and cool air, wet-bulb temperature, will create the fluffy snow that's best for skiing.
In the garage, I met Wayne who took me along for his evening ride in the Prinoth BR 350 Winch Cat. Wayne spends his winters grooming and is a golf pro in summer. I was truly in for a treat; with his over 30 years of grooming he shared more information than I could ever possibly write down on my notepad. As a mechanic made last minute adjustments I took the opportunity to check out the workshop.
And off we go. Inside the cabin is toasty with heaters blowing and classic rock playing. A little bit about the unique advantages of the winch groomer - it has a traction enhancer which allows the machine to not drag snow and work on extremely steep trails. As Wayne says, "the traction is so well designed it is less than a human foot stepping on the snow," even though the groomer weighs a whopping 13 tons! From chopping up icy trails to handling huge mounds of snow there really isn't anything stopping this machine except wind (no point in grooming when it's windy out) and warm weather.
Our mission for the night was to groom Banshee, after three days of snowmaking it was time to bulldoze the piles and 'push it-out' for skiing. "It's going to be an interesting operation," says Wayne, as the winch has never groomed this particular trail before. Heading out, it was still twilight which is the "worst time for visibility" said Wayne but soon night would fall. Once dark, the machine’s front lights provide excellent contrast against the snow.
The best way I can describe bulldozing the snow is it is like riding an ocean tidal wave on a massive ship, the only difference here of course is well…we're on land. Also, you have more control over your 'ship' as you can turn both backwards and forward. Along the way, Wayne noticed that hydraulic fitting bolts were loose on the front so we quickly headed back to shop for tightening.
Back out in no time and I could see what Wayne meant about nighttime contrast giving us optimal visibility. This time around, instead of dozing the piles at the bottom of the hill we headed straight up Banshee with a slight struggle but Wayne's handling of the machine gets us up without issue. "There's a lot going on" Wayne says while steering on the left, right side tiller control (the little gray knob is a potentiometer which gives hydraulic pressure to wench), and the wench. Of course, "repetition breathes familiarity" and after 30 years it is indeed all instinct.
At the top of Banshee, Wayne hooked us up to a sturdy pine tree for anchor support helping us maneuver back and forth easily while smoothing out the giant mounds. Before setting the anchor, he radioes over to the other groomers which is standard protocol whenever exiting the machine.
Officially hooked in (the line extends the entire length of trail or a quarter of a mile), we proceeded down the hill at an angle of almost 90 degrees, near vertical, and my heart drops until I realize the winch has us stabilized and we can move any direction. We moved up and down the trail as if plowing snow on a flat surface. As we pack down the snow, rolling over it repeatedly because there is no moisture in the air, I casually bring up to Wayne about how the average "Joe skier" just doesn’t understand what goes into grooming, he concurred. People might think as soon as the snow drops, the groomer just drives over it and it's done - a common misconception many of us have, myself included before riding with Wayne. From the different snow types to the varying terrain groomers have to have knowledge of to create snow surfaces for the different types of skiers, it really is an art of its own.
Wayne let me off the hook early since he'd back out on the trail grooming for at least a couple more hours. It was great to experience the "other side of the mountain" and to see the hard work put in by the grooming crew.
Much thanks to John Devivo, Wayne, and the rest of the crew making this truly unique New Hampshire State Park experience possible.