On Riding the Beast
By Robert Ross
“If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit,
for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to the man. All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth.”
— Chief Seattle, Suquamish Tribe
“Beast” in question, looks like something out of a science fiction
movie, where man has blended with machine. The mind of man is somewhere
hidden behind a mass of metal, in a half-million dollar, thirty-three
thousand pound behemoth. This man-machine moves forward with a certain
deliberation, metal claws reaching out like the append-ages of an ocean
crab . . . jaws opening, then closing . . . powerful, moving, pushing,
leveling everything in its path with ease.
Beast, this mega-machine, is the world’s largest snow groomer. And in a
few minutes, I’ll be in the cab, taking the ride of a lifetime.
4:30 p.m., in Sun Valley, Idaho. There’s a certain excitement in the
hallways as the ski patrollers kick off their boots. They’ve made their
final sweep of the mountain — more than two thousand acres, signaling
to all: mountain closed to the skiers, and also signaling: mountain
open to the snow groomers.
groomer’s afternoon meeting concludes; seven drivers have their
assignments. “There are issues on the slalom race course over in the
Warm Springs ski area that need attention”
Kerry O’Brien, the snow grooming manager, announces. And the winch cats
(groomers with winch cables attached) are discussed. My mind has
difficulty grasping the concept of securing a grooming machine with
cables as it lowers itself down the side of a mountain to do its work.
But, apparently it’s all part of night’s work. Seven snow cats work
from 4:00 p.m. to midnight, and another crew works midnight to 8:00
a.m., all to prepare the slopes for an onslaught of skiers.
final bathroom stop and it’s downstairs to the Beast. Heart pounding, I
grab the side-view mirror mount, climb onto the tracks, swing one leg,
then another into the cab. The driver — Jim — ignites the 527-horse
power diesel engine. The jaws of this mega-machine close as we
negotiate our way out of the parking bay — the Beast’s cocoon. The jaws
open wide again, and we begin our journey.
ski season, Sun Valley has thousands of skiers and snow boarders a day
on the mountain, all with the same intention, to go from a higher
elevation to a lower elevation, carving their turns, throwing snow here
and there. Needless to say, by the close of the day, a lot of snow has
been moved about. What started out as finely-groomed “corduroy” slopes
at 9:00 a.m. looks like the leftovers of mashed potatoes on a
Thanksgiving dinner plate by 4:00 p.m.
Sun Valley — as a resort — was the brain child of Averell Harriman.
He was chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad and an avid skier. In
1935 Harriman commissioned an Austrian count, Felix Schaffgotsch to
scour the U.S. in search of a potential “Swiss Alps”-type of mountain
resort. It was decided that the Wood River Valley would be that
setting. The Union Pacific had a spur line running from Boise to
Ketchum, making the area accessible.
December 1936 the Sun Valley Lodge was opened and the rest, as they
say, is history. Soon names like Errol Flynn, Clark Gable and
Ernest Hemingway were flocking to this ideal getaway. In fact,
Hemingway completed For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1939 while staying in
suite 206 at the Sun Valley Lodge. “Papa” Hemingway eventually made Sun
Valley his home and is buried with his fourth wife about a mile north
of Ketchum. (For more on Sun Valley, Google: Awareness Reflexions Sun Valley’s Serenade)
ski season, Sun Valley held a weekly contest to choose four winners to
ride in the Beast while it does its work (Friday and Saturday nights
only). With a phone call, and of course pleading my case that I would
write an article on my experience, I managed to secure a seat. The
Beast normally holds a driver and one passenger, but my wife managed to
squeeze into a jump seat too for this adventure.
leaving its cocoon, the Beast chugged along a few dozen yards to the
base of the River Run chair lift, pivoted to the left, and we began our
ascent — from a 6000-foot elevation to the top of Bald mountain at 9000 feet.
Beast is maneuvered by using two hand controls — the driver’s right
hand covers the control unit while he steers the vehicle with his left
hand. Jim glances at a digital panel which looks more like a Star Wars
video game — giving him pertinent information to negotiate his way
around the mountain.
I feel a pressure on my back as the ascent steepens, moving from upper
River Run to the “Cutoff” ski slope, which is . . . steep! We’re in
full grooming mode now. It’s up to the top of Cutoff, then down, then
up, Jim knows these slopes, he’s been doing this for more than thirty
chatter on the radio, another snow cat has some issue, Jim listens
intently, but it’s nothing of consequence. As we continue grooming
Cutoff, I ask our driver, “what’s that
one memorable moment you had while doing this job over the past thirty
years?” He hesitates for a moment, reflecting back over three decades.
“I guess it was the time I . . .” he pauses for a moment “I guess it
was the time I created a bit of an avalanche back in the 1980s, and my
machine was pulled down with the avalanche.” He shrugs it off.
His fellow groomers had come to his rescue. All in a nights work!
The Beast is manufactured in Canada by Prinoth, but designed by the Pininfarina group, both are Italian companies. According to Paolo Pininfarina, Chairman of the Pininfarina group: “Prinoth had asked us to create something unique for its snow groomer range, that could combine today’s design with that of the future.” And futuristic it is!
At the top of Bald mountain — 9000 feet — it
was time for some photos. Jim cut the engine and we all get out to
stretch and enjoy the silence. The sun was approaching sunset, which
allowed for a magnificent view of the surrounding mountains to the east
and town of Ketch-um below . . . it was one of those magical moments.
did some more grooming and by about 7:30 p.m. are dropped off at the
Roundhouse restaurant (7000 feet) which can only be reached by a
gondola. The gondola operator offered us blankets for our ride down the
mountain to the River Run lodge.
in the gondola, we reflected on our experience. It was clear that the
snow groomers took an enormous amount of pride in their work, which has
resulted in Sun Valley being rated as one of the top resorts for
grooming in the nation.
mused on the amount of work that goes into the skiing experience. Each
year, most skiers will exclaim, “did you see the price of the lift
tickets? They keep going up!” But . . . seven groomers, 4:00 p.m.
to midnight, another seven groomers midnight to 8:00 a.m. (7 days a
week) combined with hundreds of employees at the Sun Valley company —
everything from snow making to ski patrolling — explains why the lift
tickets keep going up in price.
involves a lot: preplanning, housing, equipment, clothes,
transportation, etc. And, it’s an expensive habit. But, oh what a joy
it is to be the first one out in the morning, on perfectly groomed
slopes . . . thanks to the grooming staff at Sun Valley.
Robert Ross can be reached by e-mail at: SanDiegoRoss@Yahoo.com
Copyright 2013 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved