At just after 2 a.m. the call came through on Alistair Thompson’s radio. An RCMP search operation was underway for a woman who had fled up the mountain to escape her abusive, and possibly armed, boyfriend. No further details were available. Alistair continued to pilot his PistenBully snow grooming cat into the inky darkness of the ski runs but his mind concocted all sorts of scenarios. Would the woman seek out the safety and shelter of his cat? Would the boyfriend soon follow? Would anyone be able to help if things turned violent?
“Cat 2, the RCMP operation is complete, both people have been located,” crackled the radio as Alistair descended toward the maintenance shop to refuel. His relief, however, was short lived. “The cops found them at the maintenance shop tearing the place up.”
When it comes to ski resort night operations, work crews learn to expect the unexpected, like this incident from Mount Seymour. Whiteouts, extreme temperatures, equipment failures, avalanche risk, and medical emergencies are just a few of the challenges that staff face regularly to keep the resort running smoothly and have everything buttoned up by first light when the public arrives.
“Operations on the mountain aren’t just about making things run safely,” says Nathan Dorward, Mechanical Services Manager for Revelstoke Mountain Resort. “It’s also about offering a consistently good experience for our guests.”
The snowmaking crew starts their twelve hour shift at 6 p.m., not long after ski patrol’s final sweep of the mountain. Although RMR is blessed with abundant natural snowfall and is much less reliant on snowmaking than resorts in the Rockies or in eastern Canada, there are critical areas between the mid-mountain lodge and the base of the resort that just don’t fill in naturally. If your motto is ‘death before download’, you have this crew to thank for keeping your P-Tex sliding on snow rather than on mud and rock.
“We focus mainly on The Last Spike, Tickle Trunk, and the Turtle Creek area,” explains Scott Barrett, a first-year technician. “The goal is to have the ski-out filled in by Christmas break.”
The season starts early for the snowmakers — if overnight temps are within a normal seasonal range, the crew of two will have equipment prepped and snow guns running by the second week of November. RMR utilizes four mobile guns that operate optimally at minus 17 Celsius, but can still produce snow up to minus one Celsius if humidity is low. The water pressure exiting the mid-mountain pump house is 200 PSI but gravity can increase this to roughly 900 PSI for a snow gun firing at the base area. That kind of pressure is comparable to one of Mike Tyson’s infamous KO punches, so care is needed when handling the lines. But what the crew really watches is temperature because all their careful planning and hard work can be washed away if a sudden warm spell turns the jets of snow into streams of water.
But snow guns alone don’t produce the velvety smooth tracks that skiers and snowboarders expect at RMR. Once there is an adequate whale, or cache, of man-made or natural snow, the cats take over, moving literally tons of snow to even out and pack the tracks in the early season. It’s how The Last Spike can maintain adequate coverage into April when the areas immediately to the sides have turned from white to green. It’s also how the terrain park is built and how the Downtowner is transformed from a rocky ledge that you’d barely recognize in summer, to a main thoroughfare in winter.
Of course, the grooming work that’s most obvious and probably most appreciated by skiers and snowboarders is flattening moguls and laying down fresh corduroy. RMR utilizes a total of seven cats on most nights that prowl the mountain over two shifts.
“People expect runs to be groomed, and less advanced skiers really appreciate that kind of surface,” says Nathan. “We wouldn’t be able to operate without the cats.”
These 500-plus horsepower, 25,000-pound machines often cost over $300,000 each and their list of features is long. The front blade, mainly used for pushing snow and contouring, is flanked by a pair of wings, making twelve way adjustability possible for the most advanced cats. The rear tiller, used mainly to lay down corduroy, has similar adjustability. The life saver though, is the winch which allows the cat to operate on slopes that would be dangerous or impossible to groom otherwise. In addition to all this, the cab usually features heated seats, heated windows, a stereo system, acoustic warnings, and a huge range of gauges that display all critical operational information.
Even with the latest technology and best operational protocols things can go wrong and that’s when the crews’ true grit shines through. When it’s 2 a.m. and you’re working in difficult weather conditions in a remote area of the mountain, there simply is no one immediately available to help when things go awry. Resilience, self reliance and ingenuity are necessary to get things back on track, whether it’s a frozen snow gun connection, a tangled winch cable, or a cat that literally needs to be puts back on its tracks. Of course, when things go from bad to worse, there’s always someone on call.
“We have three journeyman mechanics and someone is always on call and ready to rip up there on a snowmobile in the middle of the night if that’s what it takes to get the work done,” Nathan said.
But every night has its dawn and for the night crew it always brings a sense of relief and accomplishment, as the first rays of sunlight reveal perfectly laid corduroy and a mountain manicured to perfection. As a bonus, the guys are already on the mountain on a powder day when everyone in town is gulping down coffee, digging vehicles out, and speeding through the school zone to get a decent spot in the gondola line.
“Knowing where the best snow is on the mountain is another perk of working overnight,” adds Scott. “But sometimes coffee and a hot shower calls.”
The natural terrain at Revelstoke Mountain Resort is world class but it’s the professional touch of these unsung heroes that polishes it to perfection each night. So the next time you’re out on a clear night, look upward toward the angelic lights twinkling through the trees high on the slopes of Mount Mackenzie and be grateful for the hard graft these crews put in to guarantee your fun.