Thursday, November 24, 2005


Into the Swing of Things

(11/25) Things have been unfolding in a similar fashion as they did when I was touring; usually unexpected and unplanned, but most often fun and exciting. I am adjusting to a regular work schedule while also becoming more familiar with Missoula as well as meeting people, making friends and getting more settled at Snowbowl. Although it’s only for a couple of months I am glad to have found such a comfortable situation, as well as a place to stay warm for winter, and have a chance to ski a new mountain. I received my ski gear as well as another bike from Alaska about a week ago (thanks Alisa!) and I’m starting to feel more at home here in Montana. But, unlike when I was touring, most days are now spent working. And trying to get the mountain opened and ready to ski is a lot of work. The days are often long and filled with many tasks but pass by pretty quick. A warm room, a hot shower and a cold beer waits at the end of each day, so things aren’t that bad—actually they are pretty damn good!

Most of the work involves getting the snowcats ready for the season, but there are plenty of other things that need attention also; greasing lift towers, installing T- bars to the T-bar lift, making snow, are among the several lose ends that need to be tied up before opening. Each chore needs as much attention as the next one and, as Murphy’s Law affirms, things very rarely go as smoothly as they are supposed to. For the most part though things are moving along and the ski area is still scheduled to open this Friday (whew-hew!). Along with the other many jobs to finish up before opening this weekend, I am also learning how to operate a snowcat.

There are 4 cats that groom the slopes at Snowbowl and each one has its own personality. Pat, the mountain manager, and Dan, Pats right hand man, are both experienced snowcat operators and seasoned drivers who know the mountain very well. I, as well as Brandon, another new operator, have been getting familiar with the controls on a couple of the cats and learning the way to groom the mountain and move snow around, which sounds a lot easier that it really is. There is a bit of a learning curve to understanding the many different controls of the machines and a lot to pay attention to while operating. The cat that I am training on is pretty touchy and requires a steady hand combined with smooth control movements (huh-huh, he said movements) in order to get it to do what you want it to do. Maneuvering the blade of the cat is bit tougher than I expected it to be and I am learning that snow is a pretty delicate thing to work with. In order to get more familiar with the mountain most of the training is being done during the day. Over the past few days the sun has been strong enough to really influence the texture and condition of the snow. It’s so affected by heat and sunlight that as the day goes on the snow gets a lot harder to work with. After the day heats up the snow it becomes soft, wet and tacky and more complicated to put where you intend it to go. A certain degree of patience is required, as well as many pointers and some instruction from Pat and Dan, but I am getting the hang of it.

Another part of grooming the mountain involves ‘track-packing’ the slopes. In order to get the mountain ready to ski on and lay down a nice ‘corduroy’ groom, the snow is driven over with the snowcat. The huge tracks of the snowcat churn up the snow and crumble it, making it easier to groom. This is actually pretty easy once you get the hang of the controls. However, the slopes at Snowbowl are steep and it’s a little butt-puckering once you point the huge cat over the edge of the slope and the front of it falls off down the other side! It’s an enormous rush of adrenalin as you approach the top of a slope and inch the cat over the side. At first the only thing that is visible is the mountains on the horizon, then in one quick maneuver the cat is plunges over the side and starts going down, down, down the slope! Now once the mountain is opened and winter is in full swing this will be done at night! No shit! It’s a lot of fun once you do it a couple of times and get the hang of how the cat reacts and how to control it. Later on this week I will be learning how to tow a snow-tiller behind the cat in order to put down the groom.

It’s been a great start to the 2005/2006 ski season. I am really enjoying the work at ‘The Bowl’ as well as learning how to operate a new machine. Although most of my time is spent working I have had some other entertaining experiences at the mountain as well as in town. Mark, resident, head of the maintenance at Snowbowl and fellow transplanted Hoosier, has showed me a few of the many different places to eat and hang out in Missoula as well as introduced me to a couple of new faces. I took in the Banff Mountain Film Festival with Mark and his girlfriend Meghan as well and also got to help a couple of co-workers, Paul and Riley, butcher their mule deer’s. Deer and Elk season opened the weekend that I got to Missoula (10/21) and since the season opened, both Paul and Riley got one of each animal. The buck that Paul took, however, was really pretty exceptional. A 15 point Mule Deer that was shot at almost an unbelievable 300+ yards with a .270! Both guys were generous enough to offer up meat to any body that was willing to lend a hand with the processing. I have already made up and eaten a bunch pasta sauce with some of the burger, and still have plenty of burger, steaks and meat to last the rest of the winter!

Well, that’s it for now. I will upload a new blog the next time I can get to town.