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East coast ski resorts depend on monstrous machines to create the best skiing experience.
KYLE GREEN | The Roanoke Times
Ryan Costin runs a 6 cylinder 370hp PistenBully 400 snowcat ski groomer up Beech Mountain ski resort between day/night ski sessions.
Friday, March 1, 2013
BEECH MOUNTAIN, N.C. — Among the ski crowd, corduroy is coveted.
It’s what draws some skiers and snowboarders out of bed in the morning, even after maybe a couple too many toddies the night before at the slopeside pub.
They want to be first down the mountain, all the better to enjoy the smooth, slightly ridged surface on the freshly groomed slopes.
Or corduroy, as the surface is sometimes called.
Out West, where big snow dumps are common, powder is king.
In the East, where nature is not so giving of fluffy natural snow, the best slope conditions usually need human intervention.
This is where a mountain’s grooming team comes into play, working the mountain with monstrous machines that can help salvage good skiing surfaces out of icy nightmares, and transform already good surfaces into slippery heaven.
It’s a job Ryan Costin knows well.
Costin is the general manager of Beech Mountain Resort, a quaint ski hill near Banner Elk in North Carolina’s western mountains.
It’s a small operation, which means that Costin gets to be a hands-on manager. As in, he spends a lot of time driving a groomer himself.
On a recent afternoon, as soon as the daytime skiing session ended at 4:30 p.m., Costin climbed into his machine.
The groomer is a bright red PistenBully 400, in this case the Park version, meaning its gear is designed not only for smoothing regular slopes but also for shaping the varied features in terrain parks used by daredevil snowboarders and freestyle skiers.
With a touch of a button, the machine’s massive, 379-horsepower, turbo-charged, six-cylinder diesel engine roared to life.
The resort purchased the groomer this off season, at a cool cost of more than $200,000.
The operation has a second, slightly older PistenBully.
The vehicle’s cab is anything but spartan.
Two bucket seats are separated by a center console covered with buttons and gauges. A small screen can display information such as snow depth and density.
The driver controls the groomer’s functions using a joystick with his right hand. Levers on the left side control the speed of the machine’s left and right tracks.
The blade is used to level bumps and move snow, while the rear rake creates those perfect corduroy lines when it is dragged over the snow surface.
The machine covers an 18-foot-wide swath.
The cab is heated, of course.
“It even has a bluetooth radio, with a subwoofer,” Costin said. “It doesn’t skip any of the amenities.”
Nor should it, really, when operators spend so much time in that cab.
Costin said he typically works a shift between the day and night skiing sessions.
“I really just give it a quick once-over,” Costin said of that session, during which he runs the groomer only on two of the mountain’s most popular intermediate trails.
He follows pretty much the same pattern, heading up the mountain on the lower and upper Shawneehaw trails, then back down on upper and lower Robin’s Run.
It’s not unlike mowing a lawn.
The night shift is when the heavy lifting takes place, including any significant snow moving to help fill in thinning spots.
“We really don’t do any snow pushing except at night,” Costin said.
The groomers never operate while skiers are on the slopes.
A second resort employee handles the grooming on most nights.
Costin said he often comes in about 4 a.m. to finish things up.
He said he doesn’t mind the work.
“It’s great for quality control,” said Costin, a 29-year-old whose grandfather bought the resort 25 years ago. “You’re able to see a lot more of the operation.”
Being on the mountain instead of in an office allows Costin to see the results of his and his fellow groomer’s efforts.
After that recent grooming session, he parked his rig and stepped out onto the snow.
The lifts for the evening session had just started. A few minutes later a lone skier cut perfect curves across the surface of Lower Shawneehaw.
The corduroy was no longer perfect, but it would be back to perfect soon enough.
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