Willoughby: Powder or packed — exhilarating either way | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Powder or packed — exhilarating either way

Powder hounds may disagree, but grooming offers advantages — especially for those of us with senior knees. Even if you eschew groomed trails, you have to marvel at modern grooming equipment. The snowcats hum whether they trudge uphill or down, and they pack wide swaths with each pass. A pride of the cats can process an entire run almost as quickly as a skier rides up a lift. Modern grooming has evolved from a slow, labor-intensive process.

During Aspen’s early years, skiers packed snow slowly, by hand. A thin base required human packers because mechanical packing churned through the snow cover and dislodged rocks below. Before the season began, those who packed snow for two hours would be allowed to ski free the rest of the day. Small bulldozers mowed over moguls, but steep slopes toppled the machines. On the steepest runs, only human shovelers could cut down the biggest moguls, which is why they stayed that way until it snowed again.

Then Aspen Skiing Co. bought the Tucker Sno-Cat — an orange, winterized version of a Jeep with four sets of tracks to provide four-wheel drive. Compared with snowcats of today, Tuckers weighed more, held a higher center of gravity, and produced much narrower tracks. Built to travel snow-covered roads, a task they handled well, Tuckers choked on steeper grades.

The preparation of a racecourse presented a different set of difficulties. Someone or something had to smush and smash Aspen’s dry snow into hardpack. Racecourse volunteers packed the fluffy white powder, and then sideslipped to smooth it out. Sometimes conditions called for “boot packing,” stomping down the snow without skis.

Aspen’s ski team bypassed a need for dry land training because they got a workout on their steep practice slope. After the lifts closed, the team packed their way upslope prior to each run.

If there were such a thing as a certified packer, I would have qualified at a very young age. I spent my earliest years skiing along the unpacked fringes of Little Nell, on the abandoned western edge. There I practiced on small ski jumps that I built myself. After I gained some skill, I used the 15-meter jump built in the 1940s for junior level jumpers.

Nobody else cared to maintain the jump, so I became its self-appointed groomer. My short child legs could not pack uphill in deep snow. My skis, shorter than the needed path width, required multiple parallel packing trips. Wherever a big kid, usually an adult-age big kid, used “my” jump, a ditch trailed behind and marred my lightweight packing job.

I’m not sure my jumping skill progressed as rapidly as my packing skill did. I doubt I noticed that the packing work made jumping more enjoyable, as a reward for hard work. In retrospect I think I got a lot out of the packing experience, more than a pair of strong legs. At least the experience enhanced my appreciation for modern grooming equipment.

I told my parents about my packing woes, but they laughed and told me about the good old days with no lifts.

“We had to scramble up the mountain,” they decried. “Yet that effort made the run downhill more rewarding.”

As a child, I didn’t get the concept. I tell my grandchildren about the boost of energy I felt at their age, after I wrapped longthongs around my legs every time I put on my skis. They don’t get that either. But all generations get the exhilaration of skiing a well-groomed slope.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.

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