Late hours, dark mornings and beautiful sunrises: An inside look at the life of a Breckenridge snowcat operator
Here's what it takes to prepare a mountain for a new day of skiing and snowboarding
Long after most skiers and riders have laid their heads on their pillows for a good night’s rest ahead of their next ski day, a long train of snowcats have started making their way up the mountain to refresh the skied-over terrain.
For Dylan Tierney — team lead of grooming at Breckenridge Ski Resort— his workday usually begins when the town of Breckenridge is lit with street lights in the dark depths of the night.
“I work the graveyard shift so some pretty weird hours compared to a lot of shifts on the mountain,” Tierney said. “I work from midnight to 8 in the morning.”
Tierney and his grooming team are faced with the huge task of opening the mountain for the next day of skiing and riding.
“We are opening the mountain the next day for the public and for everyone to see,” Tierney said. “There is kind of a lot on our backs when we go out there. Trying to get all our teaching areas, all our blue, green terrain groomed for all of our guests that love skiing groomers.”
In other words, the grooming team at Breckenridge Ski Resort works while very few people are on the mountain in order to ensure an enjoyable day of skiing or riding for guests the next day.
In many ways, snowcat operators are the unsung heroes of the day-to-day operations at ski resorts.
Tierney says that teams of 10 to 12 people make up each grooming shift with one shift taking place from 4 p.m. until midnight and the other beginning at midnight until 8 a.m., which is about 30 minutes before the mountain opens in the morning.
“Anywhere from 20 to 24 people a night between the two shifts are out there working eight-hour shifts in order to get the mountain ready for the following day, which is quite a few people if you think about it,” Tierney said.
With so much terrain to groom across Breckenridge Ski Resort’s five peaks, it takes both eight-hour shifts in order to ensure that the ski resort’s groomer runs are brushed over before guests step foot on the mountain again when the sun rises the next day.
According to Tierney, the process of grooming the mountain each night can be extended if there is significant snowfall but sped up if the mountain receives just a few inches of snow.
“Super, super snowy nights can make things take a little longer,” Tierney said. “Trying to wrap everything up and not leave big wind rows of snow around. Nights where you only get 2 to 4 inches of snow actually speeds things up quite a bit. It helps to fill the trenches and grooves left from people’s skis a lot easier.”
Tierney and the grooming team at Breckenridge will also work in tandem with other members of the ski resort in order to open up and maintain terrain throughout the winter season.
“We coordinate with our higher-ups through the mountain,” Tierney said. “We try to connect all our main base areas first and then expand from there. It is all on what they want to do, and we work pretty closely with snowmaking when that is going on.”
The grooming team and snowmaking team works in conjunction in the first part of the season to flatten out snow whales or turn off and on snow guns. The grooming team at Breckenridge also works with the ski school to build out skiing terrain that is appropriate for first-time or beginner guests.
Tierney — who has worked as a snowcat operator for five winter seasons— says one of the hardest aspects of being a snowcat operator is making sure that the slopes are properly groomed prior to the next day of skiing and riding.
“I think one of the hardest parts on a daily basis is trying to leave a good pass for all of our guests and everyone who is going to come out to ski the next day,” Tierney said. “Making sure you are doing everything you can to leave a flat and safe skier surface.”
In terms of Tierney’s favorite aspects of the job, he enjoys being out on the mountain when almost no one else is. The opportunity gives Tierney solace as he sees several Summit County sunrises and still has time to get in a few turns of his own.
“Some people don’t like it, but I think it is really cool that you stay up all night, and that you were out there grooming the mountain, getting it ready for the following day,” Tierney said. “You are also off in time to get all your snow stuff on to be out at the mountain for the first chair and be able to ride on what you have just groomed. There is a cool aspect in getting to see what you did the night before.”
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