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Manicuring the mountain

Photo by Ryan Salm/Sierra SunA grooming machine tames the slopes at Sugar Bowl on Tuesday.
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A cold front is pushing in as Julia Dunievitz nudges her 11,000-pound grooming machine into the last rays of sun atop Mount Disney.

She’s a couple hours into an eight-hour grooming shift at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, and the hypnotic hum of the snowcat’s powerful engine rumbles up through the cab as the machine lumbers to a stop.

The solitude of the mountaintop vista is interrupted only by two passing groomers that are laying down perfect rows of corduroy on Disney’s west flank. Farther west, past Devil’s Peak, the molten sun drops beyond the horizon.



A bitter wind whips up some loose snow and sends it streaking past the snowcat’s cab.

“I enjoy not being with a million people,” says Dunievitz. “I just work and listen to my stereo all night.”



Such is the solitary labor of the small army of groomers that attack 500 of Sugar Bowl’s 1,500 acres each night. During the 16 hours from twilight to morning, up to 13 grooming machines roam the mountain molding lift ramps, laying down corduroy and shaping freestyle parks.

In her fifth winter on the grooming crew, Dunievitz is at the controls of Sugar Bowl’s newest piece of grooming machinery, a Bombardier 350. It plows the snow with its front blade, pulverizes the snow crystals with the tiller hanging from the back of the machine and then rakes perfectly groomed lines with its combs.

“There are little tricks you get used to,” says Dunievitz as she deftly manipulates the joysticks, buttons and levers that control the hydraulics of the mechanical beast.

Under her control, the mammoth snowcat is nimble, able to nudge the bar of a ski lift’s chair down, or reshape a lift ramp with an artistic flair.

The recent return of cold weather is good news for the groomers, who have struggled to keep the mountain in prime condition after a string of unusually warm days.

“I’ll be glad to get the cold in here and drive the cold into the snow,” says Dave Kennedy, who manages the grooming fleet.

As darkness falls, Dunievitz switches on the machine’s lights. Her fellow groomers, scattered around the mountain, also blink to life.

Across Lake Van Norden, the specks of light from grooming crews at Boreal Mountain Resort and Donner Ski Ranch flicker into view. A soft moonglow appears on the horizon. The moon hovers just below the silhouetted mountains.

The night is quiet. The warmth of the cab and monotonous drone of the groomer’s engine induce a mild trance as Dunievitz lays down stripe after stripe of manicured snow. The snowcat’s lamps pierce a tunnel of light into the murky darkness.

Occasionally her lights will illuminate something left behind after a busy day on the slopes ” a wallet, watch or walkie talkie.

“You always find good things in the snow,” she says.

Up on Sugar Bowl’s race course another groomer is winching his snowcat up a steep pitch. The powerful winch pulls the machine up a cable connected to the top of the run.

By morning the mountain will be combed fresh, and the mountain’s grooming crew will be asleep, resting for another solitary night of laying down tracks on the mountain.


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