The Groomer’s World
At 12:15 a.m. I’m walking single file among Carhart-clad groomers from the parking lot to the grooming office at Squaw Valley USA. There is little talking, it is snowing hard – by morning Squaw Valley will receive 20 inches and 67 inches before the storm cycle blows through – I whistle inaudibly to myself, “hi ho hi ho off to work we go …”
In the office, Tom Boxler, the head of grooming at Squaw Valley is staring at his computer screen, pulling up various National Weather Service maps off the Internet. He points to the low sitting over California. “Tonight’s going to be hairy,” he says.
A motley crew of graveyard shifters begins filing into the office for the pre-shift briefing. Ages range from low 20s to high 60s. There are two women, the rest are men. Some look tired, others bright eyed, most are sipping coffee or Red Bull.
I’m introduced to David Mac Arthur, known by all as Macadoo. Macadoo will be my guide into the grooming world. Said a fellow groomer of Macadoo: “He’s got a lot of stories; he’s been buried the most.”
Boxler gives out assignments. This is the heaviest storm of the season. He warns the drivers to be safe, and to coordinate with ski patrol in the morning. He recalls coming into the path of ski patrol explosives on similar nights past. “It was like Danang out there,” he recalls. I doublecheck my avalanche transceiver. He ends the briefing with what I suppose could be the groomer’s credo, “It’s our job to get this mountain open,” he says. The meeting adjourns and everybody heads outside towards their Kassbohrer Pisten Bullies.
The Pisten Bully is the premier grooming machine and the long-time drivers are attached to their cats. Macadoo wears a Pisten Bully belt buckle. Powered by a Mercedes engine, the 280-horsepower machine is capable of 1100 newton meters of Torque at 1300 RPMs. For laymen that means it can push a lot of snow, equivalent to three full-sized pickups with their brakes on.
Macadoo, with me at his side, will be heading up the Saddle of KT-22 and plowing the path from the top of the Olympic Lady chair to the top of Headwall. It is one of the gnarlier routes on the mountain.
In 1995 a groomer went off the cornice at the top of the Cornice II chair along the same route and tumbled several hundred vertical feet to the flats. He wasn’t discovered till morning. He was bruised, hypothermic and shook up, but OK. Boxler tells me that Macadoo is one of the few groomers that he trusts up there.
The 44-year old Macadoo has been grooming for 27 years, 17 at Squaw Valley. He has traveled the world as a groomer, grooming in Tahoe during the winter, in Australia during the summer and roaming Asia in between.
I met a groomer on a chairlift some days before who told me he liked grooming because he didn’t like people. Along that line I expected groomers to be a solitary lot drawn to the job for its isolationist nature.
In Macadoo’s case it was soon clear that rather than a disfavor for people, his was a profound favor for the machine. His first word as a child was “uck” as in truck. His father, a cattle rancher in Illinois, had a collection of antique tractors. He describes a woman he was fond of: She was a diesel engine mechanic and their first date was a trip to the Monster Truck rally and then to the Kassbohrer dealership in Reno to check out Snowcats.
“If I had known Snowcats were around when I was a kid, I would have said that I want to be a Snowcat driver when I grow up,” Mac says. “I’m like a little kid in the sandbox with his toy truck and this mountain is just one big sandbox.”
And the toy truck is a $200,000 German engineered state-of-the-art machine, he might have added.
We begin winding our way through the night. What landmarks exist are obscured in the storm.
The Xenon lamps in front of the cat only illuminate the falling snow. I realize the groomed roads that make navigating the mountain so easy during the day are only there because the groomers have come the night before. Before the groomers it is merely an endless snowdrift.
We soon turn off what I recognized or at least what I assumed to be Mountain Run. We head up the Saddle, laying down a new road as we go. We wind through trees, the path steepens, cliff signs come into view less than a meter to our right. The Enchanted Forest, a daytime playground of rocks, cliffs and rollers drops away to our right. I am sure we will hit a tree, get stuck in the bank, go over the edge, but soon we are atop the ridge. The wind blows harder now. Visibility is zero. At times we are forced to stop and wait for the wind to subside.
Macadoo begins to recreate the road that has been washed away by the newly fallen snow. One of the reasons he enjoys the task so much, he says, is because when he’s done there is a finished product.
“You can look back and say that came out beautiful,” he says. “The mountain is the canvas, the snow is the oil, the machine the brush and I am an artist.”
Back, forth, back, forth, he works with the snow, pushing it there, shaping it here until a road has appeared out of the drifts. The road is narrow at parts. I lean out the window and squint into the storm. The mountain falls steeply away below me into Alpine Meadows. The Cat’s treads hang nervously over the edge. Macadoo senses my concern, but reassures me. “It’s OK if the treads hang off,” he says. “As long as the wheels don’t.” I don’t see any wheels.
We head up to Headwall, along the Ho Chi Minh trail, as it is called. We are three hours into the night and my eyelids are getting heavy. The steadily falling snow is hypnotic and the engine’s monotonous rumble lulls me into a of semi-conscious
reverie. The machine lumbers blindly along the Ho Chi Minh, confidently directed by Mac between the rocks to our right and the ledge to our left. The radio gurgles to life, “Base, this is 99, do you want me to blow the bridge?”
My mind wanders back to the midnight meeting. Boxler: “It was like Danang out there.”
Danang? Blow the bridge? Ahh … snowblow the bridge. I rouse myself and it all falls back into place.
Macadoo is a distant relative of General Mac Arthur (“We’re from the same clan,” he says). But whereas the general created war, Macadoo sees himself as a “creator of smoothness.”
As the night wears on and slowly gives way to morning, activity over the radio increases. The radio is the nervous system of the mountain and one can listen to the mountain come to life through the radio’s transmissions.
Mountain manager Jimmy King comes on the air before 5 a.m. He’s giving orders and asking questions. He’s at the helm of the logistical maze. He’s monitoring three radios, coordinating the slow arousal of the sleeping giant. He needs to get lift maintenance to the top of KT-22. Macadoo’s going to have to take another trip down the saddle so a snowmobile can make the run to the top.
Every lap up and down the saddle puts us in the paths of potential avalanches. Avalanches are a real danger for groomers, out on the mountain in rumbling machines, cutting roads through slabs of snow, hours before the first ski patrol has begun throwing dynamite.
In 1991 Macadoo was plowing Siberia Ridge when a slide came down from above and buried his cat, smashing in his front windshield in the process. He was fortunate to be able to reach his radio in the air pocket above the snow. He was quickly unburied and escaped unscathed. In 1998 a groomer at Alpine got caught in a slide off of the Summit chair and was buried until morning. He was only found when a ski patrol tripped over his antennae in the morning.
The trail that we plowed earlier is already snowed over. To keep the Saddle accessible Macadoo will have to make three or four more passes before the night is over. After Macadoo clears a road, lift maintenance can reach the top via snowmobile and set the lifts spinning. Once the lifts are spinning ski patrol can arrive. Mac will shuttle ski patrol up to Headwall to perform avalanche control. Once avalanche control is complete and the mountain is safe the mountain can open to the public.
Bringing the mountain to life requires the successful completion of a series of interdependent tasks. Macadoo and his fellow groomers are the infrastructure who provide the highways and thruways that allow the other cogs to perform their duties. All night Macadoo has traveled back and forth along the same path, fighting off the blizzard, keeping the road open.
As the sun rises, even obscured as it is by the storm, daylight seeds a second wind and Macadoo is ready to finish his shift. We’re sitting at the top of the saddle, listening to KOZZ, waiting for Ski Patrol to finish dynamiting and give us clearance to descend. It’s almost happy hour, which comes at 10 a.m. for groomers. Life is backwards.
Macadoo goes to sleep at 3 p.m., wakes up around 11 and starts the night all over.
He may not drive a snowcat forever. He says that when he grows up he might switch to beach grooming.
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The area’s top up-and-coming skiers and riders on Saturday opened the 2022 USA Snowboard and Freeski Association North Tahoe Series, dusting off their best tricks during a round of rail jam at Homewood Mountain Resort.