In the fall of 1805, having just spent two years crossing the country by any means possible, William Clark and his worn out crew reached the Pacific Ocean near the Oregon-Washington border. Before long, he penned the words that would shape our nation's view of winter in the Pacific Northwest: "Eleven days rain, and the most disagreeable time I have experienced." His lack of stoke is understandable: Clark was no skier. Indeed, over a hundred years would pass before downhill skiing would come to the Cascades, and bring with it a new light in which to view our wet climate.
Winters here are defined by colossal masses of wet air riding the jet stream for thousands of miles, picking up steam as they cross the Pacific Ocean before suddenly crashing headlong into the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. At this point the clouds must lighten their loads by dumping precipitation in order to rise above the mountains. Add into the mix arctic air pushing down from the north, tropical air coming up from the south, La Nina, El Nino, convergence zones, high pressure ridges, snow dances, and sacrifices to Old Man Winter, and you can see that there are many factors playing into our weather. We have years when the Cascades get more snow than any other region on the planet, and years when we consider ourselves lucky to get a few inches every now and then to refresh the groomers. It's no secret that, so far, this season has leaned towards the latter. Still, even for a true powder junkie, carving corduroy on a sunny day is far from, as Clark put it, "the most disagreeable time I have experienced." Indeed, it was on such a bluebird groomer day six years ago when this writer/powder-seeker fell in love with Stevens Pass and never looked back.
Those who have been braving the rather mild (and often downright nice) weather this winter know that our groomers and terrain park have been top notch. This is no accident. Over the last few years here at Stevens Pass we've been updating our fleet of snowcats and changing the way grooming is done in order to get the most out of our terrain and snowpack. The path to good corduroy starts in the hot, dusty days of summer. Brush is cleared using both hand tools and specialized all-terrain brush cutting machinery, and boulders are moved aside or blasted into smaller pieces using explosives. This work allows us to open with less snow on the ground, and keeps runs looking nice even as the snowpack melts away later in the season.
For a skilled operator going for the best possible skiing and riding experience, grooming a run is not just a matter of driving back and forth to lay down corduroy. It takes intimate knowledge of the ground underneath the snow, snow depth, the air and surface temperature, and the desired outcome. Normally a groomer's workday starts at 10:30pm, after the hill lights have been turned off. After a short meeting to go over the list of requests from the Pro Patrol and Lift Operations departments, as well as the general goals for the night, eight or nine operators head out to their assigned snowcats to start the night's work.
Weighing in at over 15,000 pounds, powered by 370 horsepower diesel motors, and with technology that justifies a price tag of about a quarter of a million dollars each, the Prinoth and Piston Bully snowcats that we use to groom our slopes are a heavy equipment operator's dream. Powerful multidirectional spotlights and heating elements in all of the windows assure good visibility. Hot engine coolant circulates inside copper windshield wiper housings, helping cool the engine while keeping the wipers from icing up. Luxuries like high performance racing seats with airbag suspension, climate control, and a high quality sound system keep the night shift bearable.
Once a solid base is established in the early season, the basic goal of grooming is to undo what skiers and boarders do to the slopes. As skiers and boarders travel downhill, they push snow downward. Bumps and berms form, and some areas are scraped thin. A 20 foot wide, adjustable blade out in front of the snowcat is used to break down bumps, push snow to fill in shallow areas, and build up or tear down park features. The tiller, a spinning cylinder covered in short blades, is mounted to the back of the machine. The tiller's job is to break down hard layers and mix old snow with new. Just behind the tiller sits the tiller comb, a rippled rubber mat that leaves the beloved corduroy texture. It is up to the machine operator's experience and judgment to decide where and how deep to use the tiller, what areas need more snow, and where they can spare snow to use for filling shallow areas and building jumps.
One trick of the trade that the Stevens Pass grooming crew is using more than ever before is winch grooming. A winch cat uses a long spool of cable and a powerful winch to help it climb hills that are too steep for a normal snowcat to get traction on. This means that a cat can push snow uphill from where it accumulates after skiers and boarders push it downhill, maintaining smooth runs and good coverage even on steep black diamond or double black diamond runs such as Lower Terminal, Panorama, Borealis, and Orion.
We may not be having one of those wet and wild winters like the one that welcomed Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Northwest in 1805, but next time you're on the fence about coming up because of lackluster snowfall totals, give corduroy a chance. After all: we've got 30+ groomed runs and the biggest park in the PNW.