Making corduroy at Mt. Rose

Powder days get all the hype, but there’s really something to be said for carving a fast run down smooth corduroy first thing in the morning. The feeling of effortlessly arcing your skis or board edge to edge over freshly groomed snow is better than that first sip of hot coffee (just kidding.
I wouldn’t make it to the resort without coffee).

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Grooming starts when the lifts stop turning and continues until the early morning hours. | Courtesy Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe

Each evening as you unwind from a day on the hill and prepare for a warm dinner, resort grooming and snowmaking crews are clocking in and gearing up to groom the runs for the next day. I caught up with Chris Anderson, a snowmaker and snow cat operator at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe to get behind the scenes.

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“Each evening as you unwind from a day on the hill and prepare
for a warm dinner, resort grooming and snowmaking crews
are clocking in and gearing up …”

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Anderson and his crew begin their shift at 4:30 p.m. after the lifts stop turning and the parking lots have emptied out and they stay until the wee hours of the morning. A second crew arrives to relieve them at 3 a.m. On the night I joined the crew, heavy snow was falling and the winds were howling making the visibility limited.

“We work in all types of conditions. When it’s good, it’s good. When it’s tough we just go a bit slower,” said Anderson.

This night was one of the nights to take it slow. To groom the steeper runs at Mt. Rose, the crews hook the snow cats to a winch which helps pull the cat up the hill as it pushes snow and controls the descent. I was looking forward to seeing one of these in action, but the weather conditions made it unsafe so we headed over to Lower Lakeview so I could observe Anderson free groom the run. Anderson said the crews often use a winch on Lower Lakeview, however it was possible to free groom the run on this night thanks to a layer of fresh snow.

 

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Chris Anderson on a grooming run at Mt. Rose. | Jenn Sheridan

“We free groom a lot of runs at Mount Rose that other resorts normally wouldn’t,” said Anderson as we pull away from the base area in the Pisten Bully Park Pro 400 snow cat. As he talks, he’s constantly checking mirrors and making small adjustments to keep the cat tilling smooth tracks of snow behind us.

“There are so many different types of snow in Tahoe. It keeps you on your toes,” said Anderson, who also works as a snowmaker at Mt. Rose, so he spends a lot of time considering the quality of the snow.

He describes the work at Mt. Rose as technical compared to other resorts he has groomed at. Changing snow conditions mean the runs vary in pitch from night to night. In addition, some of the steep runs on the Northwest face of Mt. Rose feature a double fall line, which means that gravity will pull heavy objects, like a snow cat, in two different directions, which is where the winch comes in handy.

 

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The view from inside a snowcat. | Jenn Sheridan

As we reach the top of the run, Anderson cuts into a drift that has formed and pushes the excess snow toward the middle of the run to fill in a small divot that has formed before we go head first down the steep incline. As we teeter over the transition back on to the steep run, I drop my pen, which bounces off the windshield.

“Sometimes the cat will free fall. We call it tobogganing,” said Anderson. “You can use the tiller to steer and stay in control.” I wait till we reach the flat ground at the bottom of the run to retrieve my pen.

We begin to climb again. This time we make our way up the side of the run where small drifts of snow have formed during the storm. The cat begins to dig into the soft snow and create a deep trench.

“That’s unacceptable,” says Anderson and we retreat back to the bottom of the run and give it another try across the run where the snow is firmer.

“I think if you ask any groomer there is a sense of pride in a job well done and keeping the runs safe, of course.”

 

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Jenn Sheridan 

This time the climb is smooth, leaving a perfect trail of corduroy in our wake. We descend back down through the soft snow smoothing out the trenches left on our last attempt and leaving an unmarked hill ready to be skied.

By now the sun has set and the glowing lights of Reno twinkle through the flurries of snow that blow around the outside of the cat. We head back to the base so Anderson and the crew can plan for the rest of the evening. However, this is the end of the night for me.

The next morning, I wake up bright and early and head out to sample the fruit of last night’s labor. Although a dusting of snow fell over night covering the smooth corduroy pattern a smile creeps across my face as I arc smooth turns down Lower Lakeview.