Oil, check. Hydraulic fluid, check. Coolant, check. Track tension, tires, check.
With all systems go on Dennis Minkensky’s Prinoth BR350 snow grooming machine, the life-long Jasperite rumbles out of the vehicle maintenance yard at Marmot Basin and settles into his shift.
As the last of the ski patrollers and lifties make their way down the slopes, Minkensky and his colleagues are heading up. The final slivers of daylight recede from the sky, and the high powered beams of the grooming machines come on. Although from his cockpit the panorama of the Athabasca Valley at twilight is nothing short of magnificent, Minkensky isn’t interested in the view. Instead, he’s concentrating on the blade of his cat as it scoops up and rolls the snow, flattening it out in spots and filling natural depressions in others. Behind him, the machine’s tiller is smoothing the disturbed material into perfect corduroy.
“It’s amazing what these things can do compared to the old ones,” he says, approaching the steep piste of the run skiers and snowboarders know as Highway 16. “The balance they have, the power.”
Minkensky would know. He grew up around snowcats, getting a job at Marmot Basin in the 1960s, “throwing snow for a buck an hour.” He would graduate to an operator in due time, and he still has fond memories of old Bombardiers and Thiokols, clunky, boxy units which at the time looked like something out of a science fiction movie. However, in an operator’s world, there’s only so much room for nostalgia. As he crests the apex of the pitch, Minkensky rapidly manipulates a joystick, toggles a bevy of buttons and adjusts various levers. In the background, CBC Radio One plays over the cockpit’s stereo. His captain’s chair rocks back and forth with the rolling of the machine’s tracks and through a heated, wrap-around windshield, Minkensky ensures he’s got a good view of anything that might want to take the $300,000 machine by surprise.
“You don’t want to be too aggressive at this time of year,” the veteran groomer notes. “What you think is a roll of snow might be a rock or a piece of terrain.”
While Minkensky does laps on Highway 16, smoothing the gentle grades of S-Turns on his downward pass in what amounts to a typical groomer assignment, his fellow snowcat operator, Kevin Pearson, has a more unique task at hand. Every night, at the end of his shift, Mountain Ops Manager Rob Ellen has a brief powwow with the grooming team to relay any requests that various departments at Marmot Basin might have. Sometimes it’s a request from the special events team. It might be an appeal from lift maintenance to move some propane tanks. Tonight, Ellen is passing on a request from one of Marmot Basin’s partnering ski clubs and has drawn up a diagram to help Pearson understand how wide, long and tall he wants a freestyle jump feature to be. After a brief discussion, Peason is ready to go build.
“Do you need that?” Ellen asks before he heads home for the day, gesturing to the drawing.
“I don’t think so, the bamboo is up there,” Pearson replies.
“Awesome. Have a good night guys,” Ellen waves.
Back on Highway 16, another groomer, Bryan Cleaver, is doing just that. He’s blasting The Offspring on the stereo, and reminiscing about the turns he laid down on this slope yesterday.
“That was the first time I ever skied my own cord,” he said. “It was cool.”
As he follows Minkensky’s lead, overlapping the veteran’s perfect pass by a few feet to create a two-tiller-wide, perfect carpet of smooth lines, suddenly, his machine starts to lag. He’s on the steepest part of the run and the snow is still soft, having only been groomed for the first time the night before. The tracks sink in, his progress threatens to stop. As he flips a switch to empty a build up of snow somewhere near the back of the machine, he swings the machine off the fall line and across the slope at an angle. He’s climbed the pitch, avoided digging a big hole in the run, but he’s spoiled the flawless corduroy.
“I can’t believe I did that,” he says. “That was exactly what I didn’t want to do.”
After admonishing himself for another minute, however, Cleaver has to shrug it off. He knows he’s still learning the ropes. Driving a snowcat is one thing, mastering the delicate controls and making consistent corduroy on the steepest slopes is another.
“Don’t ski there tomorrow,” he jokes.
While Cleaver might not be submitting Highway 16 as the next day’s “Groomers’ Pick” for Marmot’s website, before he ends his shift at 2 a.m., the entire mountain will have undergone an amazing transformation from when he, Minkensky, Pearson and winch cat groomer Darcy Ruddy fired up their machines 10 hours earlier. Snow which had been skied off to the sides of Tranquilizer will be back in the middle of the run; the early-season depressions that represent rock wells and terrain hazards will have been smoothed over on Basin Run; mini moguls on Paradise will be flattened into rocking rollers; and icy patches at popular egress points will once again hold an edge. The following night, a Friday, there will be more snowcat operators on shift. Because while Marmot Basin’s groomed runs look good on any given weekday, come Saturday, when the crowds arrive, management wants the mountain pristine.
“We really try to push to have the place world class for guests on Saturday morning,” Ellen says.
Oil, check. Hydraulic fluid, check. A lineup of eager skiers and snowboarders waiting for the gate to drop on the first chair of the day, and a entire mountain of carve-ready groomed runs?