Groomin’ the steeps tricky as skiing ’em
You can’t help but get a little nervous when a Snocat driver asks,”You’re sure you want to do this?”Those were the last words uttered by Steve Fischer before he goosedthe Bombardier Snocat over the upper lip of Aztec – the short,steep trail that’s gained fame as part of Aspen Mountain’s WorldCup downhill course.Fischer, head of the Aspen Mountain grooming crew, accommodatedtwo passengers’ requests one night last week to drive down a steepslope without being secured by a cable. He was driving the AspenSkiing Co.’s winch cat, a specially-fitted machine designed specificallyto tackle the steeps.As he dove onto the upper slope of Aztec, it created a sensationsimilar to an airplane’s takeoff as it, for a split second, seemsto leave your stomach behind.That sensation was soon forgotten as we braced ourselves to keepour faces from being pasted against the double-pane front windshield.On steep Upper Aztec, everything in the Snocat cab that wasn’tsecure tended to slide forward, passengers included.Fischer, wide-eyed and deep in concentration by that point, reachedout to various knobs and controls in the cab without looking.The 8 1/2-ton cat growled as he accelerated down the steep downhillslope.The trick to avoiding a slide down steep slopes, Fischer laterexplained, is to keep the Snocat’s dual tracks churn-ing. A coupleof times the cat jerked and lunged as we went into a brief skid,but both times Fischer’s acceleration kept us under control.Often on a steep slope, the cat wants to slide sideways if notsecured by cable, Fischer said. Even though there’s limited dangerof the low-centered vehicles rolling, it gives the driver an utterlyhelpless feeling.The trip down Aztec in the Snocat didn’t seem to take much longerthan a blistering ski run down the steep trail when it’s groomed.Flying down such a steep pitch created an optical illusion withthe lights of Aspen down below. The town, it seemed, was tiltedup at an odd angle rather than the cat tipping downward.After making it to the bottom of Aztec, Fischer wanted to demonstratewhat it’s like trying to claw the way up without benefit of thewinch cat’s cable.We made it up about halfway before the cat bogged down, our progresshalted but the machine’s tracks digging trenches into the softsnow.And that is exactly why winch cats are needed to groom steep slopes.If trails like Aztec were groomed consistently, every other dayor so, they would become compacted enough to allow grooming withouthelp from a winch set-up, according to Fischer.But there’s enough intermediate terrain on Aspen Mountain to capturethe grooming crews’ nightly attention. Steeper trails such asAztec, Spring Pitch, Roch steeps, Sunset/Sunrise, Back of BellNo. 1, Northstar steeps, Red’s, Buckhorn, Blondie’s and Pussyfootare groomed roughly once per week.In some cases, a regular grooming machine could handle the pitchof some of those slopes with little trouble, but the tracks wouldchew through the snow and till up rock and dirt. Buckhorn is aprime example of that kind of trail, said Fischer.The highlight of the groomers’ season is the shot at Walsh’s,the double-black diamond treat. Fischer will tackle that in April.”Walsh’s is probably the steepest, but I don’t get to do it thatoften,” said Fischer. “It’s a once-a-year thing.”The winch cat is outfitted with a hydraulic arm anchored behindthe cab that rotates 360 degrees. At the front of that arm isa mechanism that controls 2,200 feet of cable. That mechanismoperates much like a reel and fishing line.Fischer and his crew have strategically planted 55 rods in theground along with 8- to 10-foot cable slings at the top of trailsthat require the winch cat for grooming. Those slings, calledpick points, have an eye into which the winch cat’s cable is hooked.Trails have up to three pick points, but Aztec has only one offin the trees to the west. Once Fischer is anchored, he regulatesthe cable pressure to avoid going full throttle with the Snocatand plowing trenches.When he can, he grooms steep slopes going up and down. Once hookedonto the cable, the Snocat operates like any other grooming machine.The front blade is used to move snow while a metal-toothed tillerchops it up behind the cat. Heavy, grooved rubber flaps behindthe tiller give the snow that magic carpet texture that cruiserslove.Using the winch cat is more complicated and time-consuming thanregular grooming.”You’ve got to have three more hands,” said groomer Pete Stevens.”He’s got to be grooming as well as pulling himself up and down.”Fischer has one set of controls that operate the progress of thecat, its blade and tiller. Another set, which don’t exist in mostcats, handle the pressure of the cable.”He’s good,” said Stevens. “That’s why he’s running the crew.”But even a skilled operator can’t avoid problems.”I had the cable break on me on Red’s once,” Fischer recalled.”I slid backwards about 400 feet. I had to give it full sticksforward with the tiller up” to get stopped.Veteran Aspen Mountain groomer Andy Wood had a cable snap on himonce on Spring Pitch. He didn’t slide when he lost the support,but headed backward once he tried to move. “I was sliding towardthe Berlin Wall,” he recalled.He slid all the way to the road right above the wall, where hemanaged to dig in and avoid the potentially disastrous fall intoCorkscrew.”Going backwards, it probably would have flipped, at least once,”Wood said. “That’s about the hairiest thing I’ve had in the winchcats.”When the cable breaks, it doesn’t tend to snap back toward thecab, thankfully. Just in case, two separate windshields protectthe operator.Skiers out on the slope have no such protection from the hard-to-spotcable. Fischer always puts up a couple of warning lines on theslope he’s winch-cat grooming and special lights swirl aroundhis cab.Although skiers aren’t supposed to be up on the mountain at night,there’s always a lot of activity. The Skico takes all the precautionsit can to prevent an unwary skier from coming down the slope employingthe winch cat and getting clotheslined by the cable.A different style of winch-cat grooming was used until about twoyears ago. The old style was to place a cat with the reel andcable at the top of a slope. The cable would be hooked to theeye of a grooming cat’s front blade, then the groomer would beraised and lowered down a slope.Every now and then, the top cat would be dragged down slope bythe grooming machine.”That’s the only thing that made it interesting” for the operatorof the stationary winch cat, said Fischer. “Then it gets ugly.You’ve got cable everywhere and cats everywhere,” said Fischer.
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Had Hailey Swirbul decided against going to Europe, she would not have finished with a career-best result in Friday’s World Cup opener. Yes, there was a time, and not long ago, when the U.S. ski team member and Roaring Fork Valley native questioned her desire to put on a race bib.