Snow farmers: The art of grooming Breck
It’s Saturday night and Breckenridge is gladly getting slammed with one of the season’s first big dumps. The temperature gauge reads 28 degrees and winds are whipping the outside of our red, German-made PistenBully snowcat.
“We groom every green and every blue run every night,” grooming operations shift supervisor Randy Veeneman says. “We’re pretty proud of that.”
Veeneman and the other big mountain groomers begin their 4 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. shift with coffee and a multi-department conference call. They start their assigned diesel snowcats and let the surprisingly fuel efficient 400-horsepower Mercedes Benz engines warm up.
Once the season is in full swing and all terrain is open for business, around 22 groomers will man the fleet. For now, it’s mid-November and the handful of swing-shifters are pumped for the weekend storm that will drop 13 inches on Breck Ski Resort, noting one of the gig’s biggest perks — knowing where the powder lives when they strap on their boards or click into skis the next morning for some “product testing.”
Secured by five-point harness seatbelts, bright lights cutting the way through fat sheets of flakes, we shrug off gravity and head up the mountain in this beast of a machine that tops out at 13 m.p.h. Resembling a tank, tires roll along two blade-laced tracks and the cats stagger uphill one after another like soldiers ready to save the day. And for droves of skiers, they’re literally doing just that. Without grooming, we would all be navigating a mountain of unruly, hard-packed moguls.
The snow guns are pumping full blast, so tonight’s cat operators begin dozing these piles of man-made snow and distributing it along the runs. “Spreading it like butter,” Veeneman says. The crew is shaping the runs, using the layer of man-made snow as a base for the fresh snowfall.
The two-way radio in the heated cab is alive with industry lingo. Terms like smearing, tilling, cut and feather, and viz (visibility, that’s an easy one) rattle across the radio. The cat’s command center revolves around a touch-screen computer and a series of buttons on and around what looks like a video game controller.
“A lot goes into this job,” Veeneman explains as he reads the run’s fall line and demonstrates a few of the front blade’s 16 functions, nudging super sensitive joysticks to adjust the blade’s direction. Wings come out to windrow snow away from the edge and back to the center of the run. The blade cuts the snow, snowcats run over and flatten it and, with the poke of a button, Veeneman drops the back tiller down and metal teeth spin the snow before it’s combed down into zipped-up lines, known as corduroy.
In his 25 winters grooming, Veeneman, 51, has become a bit of a perfectionist about his corduroy. “It has to be seamless,” he says.
Riding solo, Veeneman’s shift moves along and he naturally slips into his zone. The graveyard shift comes in at 12:30 a.m. and grooms until 8:30 a.m. Veeneman will go home, sleep, get his boys on the school bus and go ski what he just groomed 8 hours ago. He logged 63 days last season.
“It’s the best job on the mountain,” Veeneman smiles.
— Lisa Pogue