The sun disappeared behind the mountains at Copper Mountain Resort Saturday, March 29, and Debbie Caves climbed into her snowcat.
She gripped the machine’s controls with both hands, feeling the way the cat’s arm met the walls of her halfpipe, checking her instruments and making tiny adjustments to scrape bits of snow in this place and that. Eddie Vedder sang through the speakers.
Caves, 44, has worked as a snowcat operator at Copper for almost 20 years. The expert pipe cutter also teaches part of the Ski Area Operations program at the Timberline campus of Colorado Mountain College in Leadville.
The program recently publicized the accomplishments of a few local women grooming and shaping snow in a field dominated by men.
In Summit County, Caves is one of two women out of about 30 groomers working on Copper Mountain’s slopes, parks and pipe. According to the resorts’ media coordinators, Breckenridge has one woman; Arapahoe Basin has four groomers, all men; and Keystone has three women out of its 37 snowcat operators.
In nearby Eagle County, Beaver Creek has two women this year out of about 30 groomers. Vail has one.
“Not many women apply,” said groomer Katy Crook, a graduate of the college’s program. “A lot of people don’t think about it as being a job.”
Regardless of gender, groomer Sabrina Lautzenhiser said not everyone is cut out for the position.
“It takes a special kind of person,” she said. “I wouldn’t call it male or female.”
Labor of love
For the three women the Summit Daily caught up with, grooming, shaping and carving the snow is an anonymous labor of love.
“They might not know who did it,” said Crook, 34, an Illinois native who lives in Leadville. But “if you put a really good trail out there, everybody’s going to ski your product.”
She likes listening to audiobooks in the middle of the night while she works.
Caves, who moved to Colorado from Louisiana at 18, said she enjoys the “pretty laidback and chill” environment and that “everybody pretty much leaves me alone.”
Lautzenhiser, 37, of Leadville, started grooming at Ski Sante Fe in New Mexico and now leads a crew on the graveyard shift at Copper.
“I enjoy it, which might seem odd to a lot of people,” she said. “Until I can’t climb in and out of that machine anymore, I’ll probably keep doing it.”
Her husband also is a groomer, and her friends and family are supportive.
“They think it’s crazy that I work late night,” she said, “but they think it’s great that I’m doing what I like to do.”
Caves also met her husband while working as a groomer. Their 8-year-old daughter loves to brag about her mom and rides with her sometimes. She usually falls asleep.
The job’s hours can be challenging. Every night, one team of groomers hops into $250,000 machines and combs the mountain from about 4 or 5 p.m. to midnight. Another team continues where they left off until 9 or 10 a.m.
Caves said the odd hours combined with atypical holidays make it hard for her to be with her family.
Pipe cutting can be especially frustrating, she said, mentioning one of the best cutters in the business who once kicked and smashed his cat’s windshield out of anger. The pipe won’t change overnight, so cutters make small adjustments every shift throughout the season. The best ones do their job with a lot of pride and patience, she said.
“If you’re just looking for your eight-hour shift to be done,” she said, “the pipe is not for you.”
In New Mexico, Lautzenhiser said she “trained with a bunch of rough types who tried to set me up for failure.” They assigned her tricky slopes where her machine would slide. She said she’s “not sure if that was to teach me something or if that was to get a good laugh.”
Now, the men she works with are “like big brothers.”
As a woman working at the resort, Caves said, “I’m treated just like anybody else.”
In teaching, however, she hopes being a woman will inspire her students. In two years of passing on her knowledge of heavy equipment in the college’s small program, “I’ve had one gal student,” she said, “and she dropped out.”
The program has helped four of her former students, who now work at Copper. Those without work experience in the ski industry or heavy equipment find the field hard to break into, she said.
When Caves first started, halfpipes were 13 feet tall. Standard pipes have grown to 22 feet, or two stories, tall.
Pipe cutters are in high demand, but the stakes are higher now, she said, so resorts can’t risk letting rookies train on their pipes. One mistake could lead to serious injury for the riders.
“It has to stay consistent,” Caves said. “These guys deserve a good product. They’re going extremely large.”
And no matter who’s flying down the pipe, 6-year-old shredders or pros, she wants them to be happy and safe.
“That’s all that matters,” she said. “That’s why we do this.”
And, she added, “Who wouldn’t like running a machine like this if you’re into running machines?”