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omg, got to ride along with a groomer

Serafina

Ski Diva Extraordinaire
#1
A couple of favors were pulled not too long ago, and the result was that I got to ride along with one of my mountain's grooming squad this evening as they got the runs ready for Saturday crowds. It was SERIOUSLY COOL. Including the part where the PistenBully started to slide sideways downhill while my host was grooming the cat track that crosses the trailheads for a bunch of the diamonds. It didn't slide far, but it slid far enough that I knew it was sliding, and in that fraction of a moment I thought "Well, I always said that I wanted to die at the base after running a black, I just thought I would be on skis when it happened".

As your basic, garden-variety Carving Junkie I take the liveliest interest in the quality of the surface on the runs, and the grooming operate seemed (apparently) happy to answer my (apparently) bottomless pit of questions...including the burning curiosity about How They Move Snow Back Up Onto A Pitch After Snowboarders Have Thoughtlessly Plowed It All Off To The Bottom, and What Is The Theoretical Range of Ways To Fix Glare Ice, How Do They Decide What Gets Groomed, and What Causes Those Death Cookies Anyway, and Where Does White Ice Come From.

Actually, I already had a theory about that last one, and it turned out to be correct. Too much grooming, or grooming when our regional high-moisture-content powder is still wet compacts the snow too much, which is where hardpack comes from. And if the hardpack gets wet and groomed, or just groomed too many times without having new snow in the mix, it turns into white ice.

And getting a front-row view to cord getting laid down on the run that I was already intending to collect first tracks on in the morning was, well, priceless.
 

Serafina

Ski Diva Extraordinaire
#12
Winching was on the list of topics I interviewed the groomer operator about. It's not just for the steepest slopes. I thought that, too, but he says no, they use it all over the place. When the snow gets scraped off a pitch and winds up at the bottom, and needs to be put back onto the pitch, they need to winch the cat. Any pitch where this has occurred, it's happened because there's a layer of ice that isn't holding the surface snow effectively - so the super-slick surface plus the extra weight of the moving snow means they need to winch.

Likewise, any pitch where they've had a lot of fresh snow (including manmade) and let it bump up in a big way also gets winched when they decide to smooth out the bumps. I don't think he was talking the run-of-the-mill knee high bumps, more the not-quite-as-large-as-a-VW-beetle bumps.
 
#13
@Serafina it seems certain places have more issues than other at creating all of those loose ice chunks versus corduroy when grooming. Especially with the rain and subsequent ice in December. Did you guys discuss this? Is it just based on the surface they have to work with or the equipment or?
 
#14
Winching was on the list of topics I interviewed the groomer operator about. It's not just for the steepest slopes. . . .
I would guess that reasons to use a winch cat depend a bit on the region. For Solitude in Utah, the one steep groomer that is groomed with a winch cat probably doesn't get much ice in mid-season.

Apparently quite a few slopes in Australia that are groomed with winch cats. Some of the terrain there seems to be somewhere between the mid-Atlantic and the northeast in terms of size, snow conditions, and potential for ice.
 

Serafina

Ski Diva Extraordinaire
#15
@Serafina it seems certain places have more issues than other at creating all of those loose ice chunks versus corduroy when grooming. Especially with the rain and subsequent ice in December. Did you guys discuss this? Is it just based on the surface they have to work with or the equipment or?
I did ask about that too! This is from the tillers, which are on the back-end of the grooming cat. When there's a lot of ice on the surface of the runs, they till it pretty aggressively to break it up, and that's where death cookies come from. Depending on a couple of factors (more on that in a minute) they might be able to run the grooming cat over and over the busted-up ice field, thereby reducing the death cookies to a layer of pulverized ice chips (aka New England Powder). Sometimes they can't, and they have to stop once the ice is busted up, and then we wind up with a field of death cookies.

Some of the factors that determine at what stage they stop with the pulverization process:

1. time available. It takes a good long while to bust up a sheet of ice, and even longer to reduce it to tiny pieces. The operator I was riding with was out looking for an "ice floe" that had been reported by either the mountain ambassadors or ski patrol, he wasn't sure which, but it was on the green cruiser and needed to be dealt with pretty aggressively due to expected traffic from noobs the following day. While I was aboard, he located the floe, made a few preliminary passes to see how much work it was going to require, and called into the dispatch to book some quality time with it later on in the evening. If the whole mountain's got to be groomed (like it has been lately what with an extended period of no snow, and what snow we did get being blown to Nova Scotia by the winds) then they need to prioritize the damage repair and concentrate resources on the most dangerous or problematic spots. Huge patch of glare ice on the main green cruiser is a bigger problem than a field of death cookies on a black diamond due to the expected skill level of the skier. So sometimes, they don't have enough time to do more than just rough up the surface and then do some more work on it at a later time.

2. the need to keep cover on the runs. Groomer told me that sometimes they deliberately create frozen cord (that was a surprise to me) because it's an effective way to keep snow on the mountain as opposed to letting it get dispersed into the trees or whatever. The same is true for the death cookies. They're super unpleasant to ski on, but they do stay put for the most part even when they're being skied on.

3. other conditions. It might be that they have enough time to grind up the ice, and may not need to leave it chunky to keep it on the runs, but the intensive grooming required for this can also start to create hardpack, or to turn hardpack into white ice, and they try to avoid that completely since it's an incredibly dangerous surface even for skilled skiers.

4. weather. If there are high winds, or expected to be high winds, they don't want to turn the death cookies into ice chips, because they'll just blow away.

then there's 5. operator error. I was amazed at how sensitive and complicated the controls for the grooming cats are, and the operator was telling me that it takes at least one full season for a groomer to develop a baseline level of competence with the task. So if the operator calls for too much pressure, for example, they can till down too far and wind up getting death cookies mixed in with the cord. Same is true for those weird divots and ridges that you can find on some groomed runs - that comes from not managing the dozer in front properly. If they drop it down when it's at an angle, you get a divot. If they drop it too hard on one pass relative to the last pass, you get a ridge.
 
#16
^^^ THIS was a seriously informative and interesting read!
:clap:
Good for you for scoring the ride, taking notes, AND sharing it here!
Thank you!
 

2ski2moro

Ski Diva Extraordinaire
#18
I wouldn't want to ride this groomer. Can you say steep? The Harakiri in Zillertal (Mayrhofen) Austria has a vertical drop of 375m 1.5 km, with up to 78%. Although I have skied in Zillertal many times, I won't be trying to ski this anytime soon.

For fun, check this out. The Steepest Piste in Austria "Die steilste Piste Österreichs." (The steepest piste in Austria)


For serious, check out this Pistenbully with winch on Youtube. (Just turn down the music, it's a little brutal.)
Harakiri Pistenbully with winch
 
#19
I did ask about that too! This is from the tillers, which are on the back-end of the grooming cat. When there's a lot of ice on the surface of the runs, they till it pretty aggressively to break it up, and that's where death cookies come from. Depending on a couple of factors (more on that in a minute) they might be able to run the grooming cat over and over the busted-up ice field, thereby reducing the death cookies to a layer of pulverized ice chips (aka New England Powder). Sometimes they can't, and they have to stop once the ice is busted up, and then we wind up with a field of death cookies.

Some of the factors that determine at what stage they stop with the pulverization process:

1. time available. It takes a good long while to bust up a sheet of ice, and even longer to reduce it to tiny pieces. The operator I was riding with was out looking for an "ice floe" that had been reported by either the mountain ambassadors or ski patrol, he wasn't sure which, but it was on the green cruiser and needed to be dealt with pretty aggressively due to expected traffic from noobs the following day. While I was aboard, he located the floe, made a few preliminary passes to see how much work it was going to require, and called into the dispatch to book some quality time with it later on in the evening. If the whole mountain's got to be groomed (like it has been lately what with an extended period of no snow, and what snow we did get being blown to Nova Scotia by the winds) then they need to prioritize the damage repair and concentrate resources on the most dangerous or problematic spots. Huge patch of glare ice on the main green cruiser is a bigger problem than a field of death cookies on a black diamond due to the expected skill level of the skier. So sometimes, they don't have enough time to do more than just rough up the surface and then do some more work on it at a later time.

2. the need to keep cover on the runs. Groomer told me that sometimes they deliberately create frozen cord (that was a surprise to me) because it's an effective way to keep snow on the mountain as opposed to letting it get dispersed into the trees or whatever. The same is true for the death cookies. They're super unpleasant to ski on, but they do stay put for the most part even when they're being skied on.

3. other conditions. It might be that they have enough time to grind up the ice, and may not need to leave it chunky to keep it on the runs, but the intensive grooming required for this can also start to create hardpack, or to turn hardpack into white ice, and they try to avoid that completely since it's an incredibly dangerous surface even for skilled skiers.

4. weather. If there are high winds, or expected to be high winds, they don't want to turn the death cookies into ice chips, because they'll just blow away.

then there's 5. operator error. I was amazed at how sensitive and complicated the controls for the grooming cats are, and the operator was telling me that it takes at least one full season for a groomer to develop a baseline level of competence with the task. So if the operator calls for too much pressure, for example, they can till down too far and wind up getting death cookies mixed in with the cord. Same is true for those weird divots and ridges that you can find on some groomed runs - that comes from not managing the dozer in front properly. If they drop it down when it's at an angle, you get a divot. If they drop it too hard on one pass relative to the last pass, you get a ridge.
Thank you so much for sharing all of these details, did you take notes or just remember all of that?! I'm so fascinated, it's really cool to now think about the hows and whys of how a groom is for the start of the morning! Looks like an experienced groomer is worth their weight in gold!
 

contesstant

Ski Diva Extraordinaire
#20
I've always wanted to do this! Man Friend used to groom at a local hill, says it's a blast! But for me, I'd be full of 1000 questions, too. How fun!!
 

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