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Aspen’s coolest cats

Charles AgarThe Aspen Times
Paul Conrad The Aspen Times
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The sunset view off the top of Aspen Mountain from a snowcat tracking down a steep slope is like looking at Earth from a spaceship: Just a head-to-toe picture window stands between you, the blustery night and an otherworldly panorama.And every day when the lifts close and skiers hit the bars for aprs, a handful of workers saddle up on these intricate, $280,000 machines to trace tracks on the slopes above the twinkling lights of town.Many of Aspens snowcat drivers say the best job perk is high-mountain solitude that, and being able to ski all day, every day.I just like being up here where nobody else is around, said Steve Fischer, the 18-year veteran cat operator and Aspen Mountain trails director in charge of snowmaking and grooming.Snowcat operators arent really alone, however. Fischer regularly spots foxes, rabbits, pine martens and coyotes, as well as elk and bear in the spring. And the radio chatter of the men coordinating their sweeps rivals any gabby bridge club.Fischer manages some 16 snowcat operators in two shifts on Aspen Mountain and says the job is in his blood; up until a recent illness, his father, Jack Fischer, was a stalwart of the snowcat crew. (Each Aspen Skiing Co. mountain has its own snow-grooming crew.)Not many people can say they worked with their dad for years and still get along, Fischer said. I know he misses it and wishes he was up here.Skilled ski bumsI wanted to be able to ski every day, said Joe Giampaolo, whos been a snowcat operator since 1992. He works the swing shift on Aspen Mountain, which means hes free to hit the slopes all day. Instead of having to get all spiffed up for a restaurant job, Giampaolo can roll straight from the ski hill to a nights work operating his cat.

You talk to yourself in the cat all night, Giampaolo said, adding the snowcat cab is cozy, and he listens to music on a satellite radio to stay awake.Catching a snack while riding the gondola at the start of a recent shift, Giampaolo was reluctant to dub himself a ski bum: We try to avoid the term, but technically, I am, he said. And life on the grooming crew just fits, he said.Most trails department staffers are skiers or snowboarders, Fischer said, and the graveyard crew has the added perk of getting first tracks, before patrollers or designated first tracks groups, Fischer said.So despite a starting pay of just $10.50 per hour, Fischer he has no problem keeping a full crew for the coveted job.Making tracksWe know what we need to do, Fischer said at the start of a recent grooming shift. He collects maintenance recommendations (he called them honey-dos) from lift crews and ski patrollers, and then the grooming team goes out in a group and follows a regular pattern each evening.Swing shift operators catch the last gondola up the mountain shortly before 4 p.m. and work until 11:30 p.m.; the graveyard shift runs 11:30 p.m. to 9 a.m.

At the start of most shifts, snowcat operators check their machines and add oil or adjust hydraulic hoses, Fischer said. While he has plenty of drivers, Fisher finds it hard to keep a full staff of mechanics as many skilled workers are being lured to lucrative jobs in the oil and gas industry. The complicated snowcats which run on biodiesel are made by a European company, Prinoth, and need regular adjustments.Pulling out of the barn at the top of Aspen Mountain in formation, the crew 7 snowcats tracks below Lift 3, then down Ruthies Run and Strawpile to Little Nell at the base of Aspen Mountain. Mindful of the noise they create, swing-shift drivers cover the sections near town early in the evening so they dont disturb guests near the slopes late at night. The crew works the mountain, then surrenders the machines to graveyard-shift drivers at the base of lift 1A. The second crew refuels and hits the upper reaches of the mountain in the wee hours.Its a little like painting, or mowing, or farming, said Andy Wood, an on-again-off-again snowcat operator since 1983. Its been compared to a lot of things.The top priorities are the heavily-traveled runs Ruthies and a few trails under the Ajax Express lift at the top of the mountain, as well as Copper Bowl, Spar Gulch and Little Nell at the base. During a big snow, graveyard-shift operators retrack trails already groomed by the swing shift to keep the mountain clear.Some slopes, such as Aztec and Sunrise/Sunset, are too steep for a standard cat, which could slip on the ice or float downhill on new snow, Wood said. Instead, crews use a winch, which is a special snowcat fitted with cable rigs. The winch operator attaches the cable to a pick point, or a sunken anchor in the mountain, and then lowers and raises the cat up and down any steep slope.Unlike area street snowplowing crews, whove been overrun during the recent big snows, slope groomers welcome the heavy snow. Its easier grooming, Fischer said of big snow days.Soft snow means the cats dont have to dig so deep into the snow and crews can cover much more terrain, Fischer said; its the heavy, packed snow and ice that requires extra attention and bogs down crews. And during the early season or in low snow years, it is a challenge not to over groom, or dig up dirt and gravel. Extra snow brings a few additional requests from ski patrollers or to clear chairlift areas, but otherwise there are no extra hassles, Fischer said.Smooth operatorsThe people that groom Aspen Mountain arent drivers, theyre operators. A driver is someone who simply steers a snowcat and might deliver restaurant supplies, for example.

When you can actually do something good, thats when you become an operator, Fischer said, explaining that something good means being able to operate the blade to move snow and the tiller on the back to make the corduroy.Theres a knack to it, Fischer said, but anyone with a Colorado drivers license can become a snowcat operator; no commercial-driving credentials are required.Its pretty quick training, Fischer said. A new operator rides along with a veteran operator for two nights and then takes the stick the best way to learn the job, Fischer said.Fischer recently has had to teach a handful of rookies, but once they learn, they become a crack squadron.And since Fischer likes to fleet groom sending the crew out as a team to produce an even swath across the slopes seasoned operators can coach newcomers via radio.Its a great job, said Wood, adding that he enjoys working with the energetic young crew.These young guys that come to work, theyve grown up playing video games and theyre good with a joystick.Operators use their left hand to manipulate joysticks to steer the cats, leaving the right hand free to operate controls for the grooming tiller in back, the blade in front, and the radios, a spotlight and bank of technical switches (not to mention eating snacks). The accelerator is a pedal on the floor.Everybody in the 1970s and 80s assumed the guys were up here doing drugs, Wood said, calling the assumption wishful thinking because at that time most staffers were older, professional machine operators. Today, a lot of guys are here just to ski and snowboard and this job allows them to do it all day.Grooming has come a long way in recent years, according to Aspen Mountain manager Peter King, who remembers the days of dragging a segment of culvert behind a rudimentary cat to simply tramp down slopes. Todays computerized, self-contained machines are a big change, which means that formerly bumped-up runs such as Spar Gulch or Copper Bowl are now groomed nightly.Being skiers and boarders, snowcat operators know what is important for grooming, and they get a big kick out of getting out on the snow after theyve groomed it, King said.Plus, Fischers crew receives a lot of praise, along with a few comments and suggestions, which they take to heart.Our guests on Aspen Mountain are really tuned in to whats going on up there, King said. They appreciate when you do a good job and they notice when theres something missing.cagar@aspentimes.com


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