Aspen Snowmass snowcat drivers brave the elements to get the grooming job done
December 23, 2014
When 3 feet of snow fell in January, it was so deep and heavy that Aspen Mountain snowcats couldn't climb runs such as Spar Gulch, Strawpile or Roch Run. So the drivers took the road up and groomed one way: downhill.
"It's got to be groomed," Coty Alred said Thursday night while driving his cat up the Lift 1A side of Aspen Mountain. "It always gets done. Sometimes it's just a little more difficult."
Worse than the heavy storms, though, are nights with bad visibility, he said. On a recent Saturday, during his 3:30 to 11:30 p.m. swing shift, he could barely tell where he was, so he used his spotlight often to find reflectors in the trees.
Other nights, his spotlight will pick up elk, bears and foxes. The foxes are around a lot in the summer, when Alred and other drivers switch to blazing trails and cutting trees. Sometimes, the crew will feed the foxes by hand. Other times, a fox will find an unsuspecting crew member and feed itself, like one did last summer with Trails Director Joe Giampaulo, who lost his Tupperware that day.
The spotlight also has a tendency to pick up people, particularly during full moons when climbing up the mountain. Alred said drivers have to warn skiers when the winch snowcat is out. The winch cat has a steel cable attached to the top of it, which is then attached to a tree so the vehicle can climb steep trails like Back of Bell and Spring Pitch. The cable sits flat on the ground until the driver begins his ascent. When he does, the cable shoots up, hard and taut.
"'Watch out. Don't go over there,' is basically what we tell them," Alred said. "If somebody's where they're not supposed to be, it could definitely decapitate somebody."
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So far, no such accident has happened, and the winch drivers put out six or seven warning signs to make sure it stays that way.
On a typical swing shift, there are five or six drivers. The graveyard shift, from 11:30 p.m. to 9:30 a.m., is usually staffed with three or four drivers who work one fewer day than the swing-shift workers.
As a swing-shift driver, Alred works five days a week and usually rides his snowboard before every shift. That's one of the reasons he loves the job. He also gets to enjoy every view and every sunset, and at the end of the shift, he takes home a little insider's knowledge.
"You always know what's groomed for the next day, especially on a powder night," he said. "You always know what was groomed first and what's going to have the most snow on top of it."
Originally from Alabama, Alred said he found himself in Aspen a few years ago working as a chairlift operator. He had experience back home operating forklifts and bulldozers, so it was a natural next step to move to driver. Even so, he says he was nervous his first night driving.
"You don't know what these machines are capable of, and there are just so many things," he said.
Luckily, Alred rode with Giampaulo, who has 21 years of experience, and Andy Wood, another snowcat veteran with 20-plus years of experience. After that, it was pretty straightforward directing the snowcat, a machine Alred said exerts less pressure per square foot than a skier. Cats typically travel 9 to 10 mph uphill.
"You can probably go 12 downhill, but I wouldn't advise it," Alred said.
On Thursday, Alred led the way for Matthew Bradway, who's only had a handful of shifts. They were responsible for grooming the entire west side of the mountain. At 11:30 p.m., the graveyard drivers took over, covering areas such as Spar Gulch, Copper Bowl and everything at the top of the mountain. If the swing shift gets done early, the two crews will start on Dipsy Doodle or Spar Gulch together.
"People love this job because you get to ride all day and drive all night," Alred said.