- Associated Press - Sunday, February 23, 2014

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) - The falling snow was wet and heavy when JR Roberts’ snow grooming machine left the operations yard at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort shortly after 1 a.m. Friday.

John Fogerty belted out Creedence Clearwater Revival’s rendition of “Proud Mary” on the radio. A coffee mug lay on its side in the center console. The buttons on the dashboard glowed yellow.

The machine chugged past the Apres Vous chairlift, where during the day skiers sometimes get stacked up like cattle in a feedlot. No one could be seen at this hour. All was dark, save for the grooming machine’s spotlight and a faint glow from several windows at the Four Seasons.

With his left hand, Roberts worked two levers topped with round knobs, driving the tracks of the $280,000 machine forward. He punched a button on a joystick with his right. A rotating yellow bar lined with tiny metal teeth at the rear of the machine began to whir.

Before it lay a rolling sea of white. Behind it stretched a wake of “corduroy,” a series of subtle rows etched into the now-compacted snow.

“It’s basically a garden tiller,” Roberts said, describing his massive machine.

The radio crackled. A static voice said the other grooming machines were having difficulty climbing Teewinot Gully, one of the gentler slopes at the mountain. Roberts threw back his head and laughed.

“It’s going to get ugly,” he said with weary amusement.

Grooming lies at the center of Jackson Hole’s recent evolution. The mountain has long prided itself on being one of the more challenging ski resorts in the country. If you desired to huck a cliff or descend chute, this was the place for you. Both remain, to be sure.

But Jackson Hole has redoubled its efforts in recent years to make the resort more accessible to intermediate and beginner skiers. Groomed trails make it easier for beginners to practice their turns.

They offer an alternative for intermediate and advanced skiers whose knees tire of the bumps. And they allow the speed demons to fly, though the resort probably would prefer they didn’t.

When SKI magazine named Jackson Hole the No. 1 resort in North America last fall, it cited the mountain’s “rolling groomers” as evidence of its varied terrain.

“Jackson Hole has such a strong brand on being such a tough mountain,” SKI magazine editor Greg Ditrinco told the Star-Tribune after the award was announced in September. “The SKI magazine ranking really demonstrates and validates what Jackson has been trying to do in appealing to a more mainstream skier.”

Grooming is not without risks - or skill - though. Roberts is one of the mountain’s grooming veterans. This year marks his 22nd at Jackson Hole and his 23rd overall.

He spent his first winter grooming at Grand Targhee.

He recalled his experiences as he drove: the avalanches, the time he fell out of his chair and hit his head on the windshield while traveling down a steep slope, the time he was backing up near a ledge and the snow gave way. Roberts and his grooming machine went over, ending up in a tree.

“It took two winch cats and a chainsaw to get out,” he said.

Roberts is the morning shift supervisor. On a good night, when the snow is light and soft, two shifts of about 15 Sno-Cats will groom approximately 300 acres of the mountain.

But on a night like this one, when the snow was driving and the machines had difficulty climbing, that figure might be more like 200 or 250 acres, said Earl Ward, head of grooming.

The difficulty of the job was readily apparent. Objects appeared quickly out of the driving snow - a bank of pines, a lift tower, an orange fence set up the evening before by the ski patrol - and disappeared just as fast as the machine churned its way up the mountain.

Giant snowballs formed on the edge of the path as the machine’s engines labored up the slope. The rotating teeth in the rear of the machine dug into the snow, creating a sort of skiing pothole.

“We’re digging holes,” Roberts muttered, and later he remarked, “This is ugly.”

A group of four Sno-Cats worked in tandem, traveling up and down a slope like a pack of Zambonis. Little by little, the rough patches were smoothed away until, despite Roberts’ protestations, the corduroy was firmly etched into the snow.

They climbed the mountain. First Lower Teewinot, a beginner’s run, then Hanna, an intermediate slope. On the South Pass Traverse, Roberts came to an abrupt stop.

“It’s always good to know where those are,” he said, pointing through the snow. A braided steel wire was vaguely visible, attaching an unseen winch Sno-Cat somewhere on the mountain below to a cement anchor buried in the snow.

Soon a light appeared. The winch Sno-Cat, which is deployed to the mountain’s steeper slope, easily achieved the grade. It looked almost like a fishing trawler, a large spool of metal wire fashioned to its back.

The other machine passed, and Roberts continued his climb: up Werner and then Upper Werner. His machine was now at a steep upward angle, not unlike that of an airplane taking off.

About 3:30 a.m., Roberts and his team achieved the summit of the Apres Vous lift. They idled their engines and dimmed their lights for a brief break. The team would continue on until 8:30 a.m.

By the time skiers begin to appear at the base of the lifts in the morning, they will be gone, leaving miles of corduroy in their wake.


Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com

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