Grooming the Games: Copper Mountain snowcat operator achieves Olympic dream at age of 54

Paul Hoagland, 54, of Dillon stands beside his winch cat at Copper Mountain Resort shortly before embarking for Jeongseon Alpine center in South Korea to serve as one of ten winch cat operators preparing the venue to host Olympic and Paralympic alpine speed events. Hoagland arrived in South Korea on Dec. 19 and will stay for three months before returning to Summit County on March. 19.
Tripp Fay / Special to The Daily |

Dillon resident Paul Hoagland enjoys a little sonic slice of Summit County half a world away while nestled inside the cockpit of his 4-ton PistenBully 400 winch cat snow-groomer in Jeongseon, South Korea.

Each morning he rises at 6 a.m. Korea Time — 2 p.m. Mountain Time — to join an international team of 10 winch cat operators from the U.S., South Africa and New Zealand to punch the clock on another day of creating what will become the race course at South Korea’s Jeongseon Alpine Centre for next month’s Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics.

And before Hoagland leaves his lodge around dawn each morning to make the 20-minute drive to work in Jeongseon, he makes sure he’s downloaded the latest audiobook chapters onto his phone via his Summit County Library card.

Books like the J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” have helped Hoagland to pass the time on his 7 a.m. through 5:30 p.m. workdays while he grooms a portion of ski slope cut into the 5,120-foot Gariwangsan Mountain. It’s a foreign wilderness of warmer temperatures and different snow that reminds Hoagland of the Great Smoky Mountains.

“It’s a lot more mountainous than what I thought it would be,” Hoagland said by phone Friday morning. “They don’t get a lot of natural snow here, so pretty much all of the snow we are working with is man-made. And there’s been good temperatures for making snow this year, unlike in Colorado. It’s a good year to be here, it’s good for the races courses — fairly wet, a good hard surface for the racers.”

It’s this Olympic experience at the age of 54 that the former Wisconsin rancher and current Copper Mountain snow-groomer sought out to achieve about a decade ago. The Broadview, Montana, native (a tiny town of just a few hundred people) was searching for his next career following the 2008 economic crash.

Hoagland’s a lifelong winter sports fan who grew up skiing at little Red Lodge Mountain in southern Montana, 90 miles away from his home. He still vividly remembers watching the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” Olympic hockey game as a 16-year-old.

Fast forward to 2008, a juncture in his life when Hoagland realized he wanted to work at a resort that hosted the Olympics. So he researched what he might be able to do at Whistler Blackomb Ski Resort in Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

But the former farmer soon found out that he was unable to get a working holiday visa to work at the games due to his age.

So Plan B it was.

“To see if I could get in the back door, somehow,” Hoagland said.

Plan B initially became applying to work as a lift operator at Copper Mountain Resort. But when Hoagland interviewed, he was asked about his machine experience. Thanks to his extensive history on the farm, the job screener recommend to Hoagland that he might want to apply for a snowcat operation job.

“And once I got the job as a cat operator, I kept building my skills,” he said.

His goal still the Olympics, Hoagland was in luck as he’d soon be working on the U.S. Ski Team Speed Center downhill training venue at Copper. And after making connections there, Hoagland was invited to be one of the Alpine course builders at the world championships at Beaver Creek in 2015.

Once he proved his snow-manicuring chops there, Hoagland was somewhat content, proud of himself that he had achieved a goal close to the Olympics.

Then this past September, he was contacted by an employee of the U.S. Ski team to let him know there was an opening for a winch cat operator in South Korea for the Olympics.

A month later, he got the gig.

“Winter sports to me was more of a draw than going to a summer games of any kind,” Hoagland said. “I heard a lot of great stories about what a cool vibe it is to be at the Olympics, so to be a part of it and to help build it is amazing.”

Since arriving to South Korea on Dec. 19, it’s been day after day of grooming what Hoagland describes as the deepest overall snowpack he’s ever worked with in his career. He and his nine teammates have been instructed to construct a meter-and-a half of minimum snow depth across the 2,700 feet of vertical gain on the downhill course they are building. It’s one that will have to be tweaked for different men’s, women’s and Paralympic competitions. But whatever the event, it will be fast.

“And they want it super fast,” Hoagland said. “It‘s actually what most receational skiers would call ‘icy.’ And then they like terrain built into the little rolls and enhances to the jumps and takeoffs and landings and that kind of thing.”

Hoagland and three other operators joined six other winch cat groomers who intermittently worked at the site over the previous two years. Providing extra help, Hoagland has been assigned to work on the venue’s downhill training run where the athletes will first ski starting in a couple of weeks.

His wife Karin will join him before the games begin in early February, while his daughter Kirstin will arrive in time for the later portion of the games. When the races are on, though, Hoagland and his team will need to be somewhere on the course watching in case standby cats are needed to groom, say, due to a weather event.

Thirty-seven days out from the beginning of the Alpine skiing portion of the Olympics, on Feb. 11, Hoagland sounded like he and other members of the course-building crew have already thought out where they’ll watch the action.

And it’ll undoubtedly be one of the best seats in the house. As of now, the groomers may set up shop off of the course’s Jump 2 area near the middle of the venue.

“It’s got a pretty steep face that they jump off of,” Hoagland said. “And the landing, it’s a big banked turn they turn into, and then there’s another little jump below a ways. It’s got a couple of big jumps where they can get pretty good air.”