Grooming the Hill

It’s 11pm at night and as I am getting ready to go check out Fernie’s bar scene Blair Craig is hitting the snooze button on his alarm clock.

Walking into town the snow is falling and I can see a sprinkling of lights dotted around the ski hill, as snow cats crawl through the night sculpting the mountain so we can rip it up in the morning.

By the time I get to the bar and order a drink Blair has made his ‘lunch’, picked up his 7-11 coffee and is driving up to the ski hill to start his 8-hour shift. It’s midnight.

Blair is one of a team of 14 guys and gals responsible for grooming the ski hill while we sleep. At any one time there are five or six snow cats out on the mountain, with two shifts grooming from 4pm-8am. That’s 80 hours of grooming per night. 5-days a week, in three-week rotations, to make sure every driver gets their share of ski time.

The passion they all share is a love for skiing. And whilst they don’t get a chance to socialize, because they are either sleeping or working, they do get to meet up for a midnight meeting when the two shifts change over. This is when they refuel and share information on the runs already groomed, maintenance issues and snow conditions. And, to make sure it’s fair, they flip a coin to decide who drives which cat.

“Not every driver can drive winch, so we have to split the winch cats between the more experienced drivers, but to make it fair we do flip a coin for the cats.”

“What do you mean ‘winch’?” Blair explained that on the steeper slopes they attach the cat to the mountain and rappel them down the slope to groom a steep section. So, it’s dark, snowing so hard you can’t see 1-meter in front of you and now you have to rappel backwards in a snow-cat to get down a slope? This job is more exciting than I ever imagined!

“You get to be on the mountain a lot, and that’s one of the things I love most about the job. The mountain changes at night. Your favorite downhill run looks completely different in darkness and from the other angle, because you are grooming uphill. It’s really easy to get disorientated on the hill, especially in a snowstorm, so the tree-line is an important reference point for us and we have a spotlight on the cab to help us find our way.”

Blair has been sculpting these mountains for the last 22 years and started out in 1975 as a lifty, before working his way into a cat. One of Blair’s most memorable moments was seeing a Lynx with three kittens and his favorite nights are when it’s a full moon and the mountain is glowing, or when there’s an inversion and the hill is above the cloud, muffling the lights of Fernie. His favorite grooming run is Diamond Back Ridge and anything steep.

“When its snowing we will groom the steeper slopes first, mainly because of the higher risk of avalanche as the night goes on, but also because the perfect powder day is being knee deep in pow with a groomed run underneath.”

The easier runs are groomed last, so that less experienced skiers have less powder to battle with and it keeps the runs softer.

“The mornings get a bit exciting, especially on a powder day. The cats have to get their groomed runs finished, then they get called to help ski patrol get to the top of the Whitepass and also help lifties clear the lift area of snow so that the chairs can run. After all, why shovel when a cat could just run th rough there and clear it out in one go.”

My final question to Blair was how does he keep awake through the night?

“Asleep at the Wheel”

Pardon?

“Asleep at the wheel. It’s a Western Swing band – you haven’t heard them?” and with that on goes the iPod and I’m listening to a bluegrass fiddle. It’s perfect.

It’s close to 3am by the time I walk home from the bar and I laugh as I look up at the ski hill. I imagine Blair waltzing round in his snow-cat. I wonder what time Blair has his “lunch” and ponder on how steep those runs must be to drive down. The following morning it’s a bluebird powder day and in the chair line up I can see Blair getting on the first chair. By the smile on his face I know we’re in for a good day’s skiing!