Mountain Experts: Alpine Meadows’ Dave Cassaro
December 22, 2008
ALPINE MEADOWS ” While most skiers might say they prefer powder skiing, few would deny that turning on the fresh corduroy of a groomed ski run isn’t a little slice of heaven as well.
The long sight lines and uniform surface finish of a freshly groomed run afford a freedom of movement unmatched by virtually any other athletic discipline. How else can you blaze down a mountainside arching 100-foot radius turns at 50 mph?
For Alpine Meadows’ grooming manager Dave Cassaro, making such World Cup giant slalom fantasies come to life each day on picture-perfect corduroy is a labor of love.
Starting off at Alpine Meadows as a lowly lift-op, Cassaro jumped behind the sticks of a snowcat 17 years ago and has never left the cockpit. Now in charge of two shifts of grooming staff, all the while grooming miles of runs each night himself, Cassaro takes his responsibilities seriously ” he doesn’t like skiing over “death cookies” or choppy mid-run berms either.
As a treat for corduroy hounds and anyone who doesn’t know what a “tiller” is, Cassaro took time out of his opening week responsibilities at Alpine Meadows to spell out a few facts on how primo corduroy is born onto a run and the skills it takes to be a great groomer.
“Snow conditions are everything in grooming,” said Cassaro. “Despite the analogy, it’s nothing like mowing your lawn where the grass is all the same. The snow can change hour to hour during the night. You really have to stay on top of the changes if you want to groom a ski run perfectly in one pass.”
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Staying on top of the changes means adjusting the numerous controls and settings of the snowcat. The two grooming tools found on every snowcat are the snow plow-like “blade” on the front of the machine and the lobster-tail looking “tiller” that hangs off the back.
If a run is rutted with tracks or full of fresh powder, the blade is the first tool to be used. The 12-way articulating blade cuts through the small bumps and helps compact unconsolidated snow as the snowcat rumbles along.
The “tiller” in the back of the snowcat does the real bulk of the work, however. The tiller is compromised of two components: the cutter bar and the comb. The cutter bar is a hydraulic powered helical cutting tube that spins against the snow surface chopping up every inch it touches. The cutting process removes air from the snow and leaves a uniformly digested surface that is immediately processed by the comb.
The comb is the true mother of corduroy as it gives the famous snow surface it’s namesake texture. While there is nothing fancy about how the comb works (it just drags over the freshly loosened snow making the pattern), the pressure in which the comb is applied can be critical.
“Finding the perfect tiller pressure for the comb is dependent on the snow conditions,” said Cassaro. “You hope to set the tiller and not have to look over your shoulder all night but sometimes you’ll adjust the pressure several times as the snow changes demand it.”
Knowing how to make the necessary adjustments to the tiller and the blade is but one example of the hand eye skills that a groomer must perfect. There is no steering wheel in the Bombardier brand snowcats that Alpine Meadows uses, so learning the controls means taking a hold of the “sticks” ” three levers used to drive the snowcat and maneuver the attachments. The levers in the groomer’s left hand control the speed and direction of the tracks, while the joystick in the groomer’s right hand controls the tiller, the blade, and also the track speed. After a few years of grooming the snowcat’s unique controls become second nature.
“Driving the snowcat day in and day out builds up a lot of muscle memory,” said Cassaro. “So much so that when you get in the car after a long night of grooming you start reaching for buttons and levers that aren’t there.”
Though tiller technique is vital for grooming success, line choice is also just as important.
Experienced groomers will strategize the way they plan on grooming a run before they start.
“The goal is to have as little variation as possible between passes while grooming smoothly with the contours of the fall line,” said Cassaro. “That may mean you groom going left to right on one side of the run, then right to left on the other side, or groom only going downhill.”
With every run defined by unique terrain qualities and snow conditions that evolve daily, experience obviously goes a long way in being able to recognize the adjustments necessary to produce a consistent finished product. But unlike perfect seamless corduroy, great groomers never fall into the same old patterns.
“There are always a few ways to get the grooming done right,” said Cassaro. “But you have to change techniques with the conditions. What worked yesterday might not work today.”
For further information about Alpine Meadows’ sprawling network of groomed runs, glades, and back bowls visit http://www.skialpine.com.
Welcome to the first installment of Mountain Experts, a special Sierra Sun holiday series featuring unique responsibilities of veteran ski resort personnel.
Today: Alpine Meadows’ Dave Cassaro makes perfect groomers.
Other stories this week:
– Boreal’s Eric Rosenwald takes terrain park physics from the computer to the snowcat.
– Northstar’s Matt Reeder makes snow. This fall, he
fought past temperature inversions in a race to open the slopes.
– The Squaw Valley Ski Patrol has no room for hi-jinx in high-wire Funitel rescue operations.
– Sugarbowl’s Doug Fagel fulfills freestyle fantasies one snowboarding lesson at a time.