As my Friday was coming to an end, Chris’s was just beginning
Today I worked my 9-5, followed by a quick cross-country ski with the dogs as it was getting dark, and then met my girlfriends for a quick bite at Lisa G’s. Home. Not bad for a Friday. With a fire in the fireplace I laid down on the couch and was content with the idea of enjoying a movie and a decent bedtime. But I had plans, and not your typical Friday night plans… although I live in Lake Placid and didn’t exactly have that typical day at work either. I call it Neverland, where the boys rarely grow up and the locals are known to play till they are old and grey… and even then that still doesn’t stop them.
For example on my way into work this particular Friday morning I ran into a lady with a beautiful owl, right in front of my building on Main Street. My afternoon consisted of a walk in the woods with three wolves from the wildlife refuge, for a 360 spin our photographer needed to take (and then my ski in the woods with my pack). It was only fitting that I end this day in a groomer at Whiteface, right?!
I had finally gotten ahold of Chris, late, as in midnight late, on Thursday night. It’s fairly difficult to connect with a guy who gets up when you’re going to bed, and goes to bed when you’re heading to work! He said to meet him at the mountain when his shift started at 10 pm.
A day (or night) in the life of a groomer
By the time 9:30 pm arrived I was honestly ready to go to sleep, so I talked myself into a grabbing a RedBull and I hopped in my car and headed to the mountain. It was snowing out and the roads were already covered in a few fresh inches, it is definitely winter in the Adirondacks.
I made the 10 mile (actually 9.5) drive from my house in Lake Placid to Whiteface and as I pulled in I could make out the tracks of two other cars. A car drove past me on the main road. I wondered what they thought seeing my car heading to down the mountain access road so late.
I drove over the bridge and turned right up towards Kids Kampus, past the Kids Kampus parking area and up to the building where they keep the groomers. Three shiny red groomers are all lined up and ready for action. I parked and look around for Chris. After a quick phone call, he told me where his office was.
When I arrived Chris was on the phone and checking emails. So I sat down with two other groomers and wait for him to get done. Ryan had already been there since 4:30 pm, they had called him in early to do some prep on the race course so it would be all set up for Saturday’s races. He was eating what appeared to be dinner.
Chris got off the phone, finished with emails and joined us; now he just had to fill out his grooming report and would be ready to get going (all I could think of was Office Space - TPS report…). While he filled it out the guys had a brief discussion on who was doing what, but it seemed like they all already knew who would be grooming what. The guys got up, Chris offered me a cup of coffee as he filled his thermos. I declined, I had had enough coffee for the day at my job, plus the 1/2 a RedBull I drank on the way to the mountain.
Here we go!
We stepped outside and the guys disappeared into their groomers. Chris opened the passenger side door on his for me and gave me a few tips on how to be careful getting in; stepping on the tracks can be a bit slippery and I had to be careful to not hit my head on the winch. I successfully slid into my seat and shut the door. The snowcat was warm and cozy and the seat was very comfortable. I was ready.
We headed up.
Snow Quality Manager
On the way up I asked Chris some general questions about his job. Chris was promoted to Snow Quality Manager this year and has been at working at Whiteface for 15 years. He was in snowmaking for the first 4 years before becoming a groomer. Apparently at Whiteface groomers groom for life, well, you know what I mean - until retirement. When Chris started in snowmaking at the mountain he had to wait for one of the groomers to retire before getting his opportunity.
I asked him if he always knew he wanted to groom. He said growing up at the mountain most boys have that curiosity and interest. I said kind of like playing with Tonka trucks as a kid? He agreed. Chris is definitely living one of those childhood dreams, his position is year-round and in the off season he uses the excavator. Cool!
During the winter Chris’s day (or night, depending on how you look at it) starts at 10 pm and goes until 8:30 am five days a week, soon it’ll be 6 days a week and will continue like that throughout the season.
As you can imagine Chris said he doesn’t get to snowboard as much as he would like. After a night of grooming he’s pretty beat and just look forwards to going home and getting some rest. When he first started grooming he’d stay occasionally to get some runs in before heading home, but now not so much. Some of my co-workers wanted to know if he ever snuck runs in and then re-groomed his tracks? Heehee, let’s just say that it might have happened on occasion when he first started, but we won’t tell. Now he really focuses on the task at hand and getting the job done well.
It was snowing as we headed up the mountain, and it got to the point where I had no idea where we were. Everything was white and we were surrounded by endless darkness. I asked if he ever gets disoriented and lost on the mountain when it’s snowing like this. Chris said yes, it’s definitely a challenge, it’s easy to lose yourself.
Favorite part of the job:
- Seeing the clean groomed lines in the light and the amazing sunrises from the top of the mountain.
Least favorite part:
- Time away from his family.
I asked him about how they inspect and maintain the groomers. He said every morning when they bring them back the guys in the maintenance building look them over, service them and make any necessary repairs. Then Chris and the other groomers look over their machines at night as well.
Top of Victoria
We headed up the mountain weaving carefully around snow guns as we encountered them. Chris navigated us to the top of Victoria. There he stopped and we got out. He hooked the winch on the groomer up to a post at the top of the run. The winch is to help control the cat up and down the steeper slopes. Whiteface Mountain has winches on two of their groomers.
How to stay awake
We started down Victoria. So how do you pass the time at work and stay awake? Any favorite play lists? He said he really enjoys NPR. He listens to that a lot of the time. He said he can only listen to the radio music stations for so long until the songs are over-played. He’s noticed he’s become quite good at music trivia, just a couple notes of the song are played and he can tell you the artist and name of the song. Oh yeah, and singing, lots of singing. Driving with the window open also helps keep him awake and alert. ...Have you ever fallen asleep?? - I decided not to ask that one, I didn't want to know the answer.
Wow, we are now at the the bottom of Victoria - how long is the cable on this winch?! He said it had another 500 feet or so left in it - the cable is 1,050 meters long. Amazed at how far the snowcat could go while it was still connected to the top of the trail, we turned around and headed back up for another pass.
The perfect pass
Heading back up the trail we talked about the art of grooming. The snow curled off the front blade of the snowcat like a perfect little ocean wave. Chris showed me how you work the snow across the trail and how to get those perfect lines. It was fun watching him do his job. We discussed how his love of the mountain and being a snowboarder really helped him to take pride in what he does and how he understands the importance of a good groom on the mountain.
Why didn't I bring my board?!!
The snow was beautiful out and I was wishing I had brought my board to take a run on the freshly groomed trail! I think I will have to come for first chair in the morning. The weather and snow was just too nice. ...I was also starting to get a bit motion sick and wishing I didn't have to ride all the way down in the cat. Chris mentioned that motion sickness was fairly common in these things, even in people who aren't usually bothered. I however am very susceptible to it, and was really feeling the affects, especially when going downhill.
The dangers of operating a snowcat
We headed down again for another pass. I asked if the snowcat ever slides or gets out of control. He said sometimes very easily. The snowcat has good traction up and down but if it ever gets sideways it’ll just go and can be difficult to get under control.
I knew to be extremely careful around the winch and that they can be deadly from the amount of tension they hold. I’ve always been taught to stay far way from them in case they break; I’ve heard how a snapped line can kill someone who’s standing too close. I asked Chris if they’ve ever broken on him before. He nodded yes, a few times for sure. He said the first time was the scariest, he was right at the top of Mountain Run (one of the mountain’s most notable black diamond trails) and it snapped. There was no one that could help him and he couldn’t get up to the top, he had to go down. The snowcat slid backwards out of control and he couldn’t stop. While I cannot do his story justice, I can tell you he thought he was going into the woods and couldn’t get the snowcat to turn around or stop, but finally managed to get it back under control. He had been close to giving up and just letting it go, but somehow got it to turn around in time. The story scared me, I cannot imagine be alone in the dark and sliding out of control on one of the steepest trails on the mountain.
Time for a quick break
We got to the bottom of Victoria and I asked to get out for a moment. Feeling much better, I asked how many more trips he was going to make and suggested that I might just stay here and watch him finish. He laughed. I got back in as he finished up the last couple passes.
Back at the top of Victoria he disconnected the winch so he could take me back down the mountain.
On our way down
As we headed back down the mountain, the interview was cut a bit short because I was too nauseated to speak. This brought on a realization and crushed any past dreams I had had of being a groomer at Whiteface. Honestly, I too had the fascination of wanting to operate a groomer, but after some hard thought realized I was not cut out for the long dark nights by myself navigating the mountain - and now I knew I couldn't stomach it (literally) either.
The end was bittersweet
We reached the bottom and my stomach gave up, I told Chris to stop and unleashed the nausea for a few minutes. Chris laughed and snapped photos, assuring me I wasn't the first. Then he offered to teach me to drive. Feeling much better, I eagerly nodded my head in enthusiasm and hopped in the driver's seat for a couple laps on the bunny hill. My apologies to anyone who took runs on the mixing bowl last Saturday. Haha. What a great end to an amazing Adirondack day.
I have a whole new appreciation for Chris and the groomers at Whiteface. I invite you to come explore our slopes for yourself.
Ski and ride Whiteface Mountain this winter, check out the upcoming events and live music. Then view the lodging page to help you decide where to stay - don't for get to check out the packages. Whiteface offers discounts on their Super Sundays, Coca-Cola Wednesdays and has an amazing learn-to-ski 3-day package. So visit us this winter! I'm sure you'll see me out there. Happy Holidays!