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Awareness Magazine
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Reflexions

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

 

The “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.

The 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.

It’s 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.

The 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.

A 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.

During 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.

By 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)

This 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.

After 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.

The 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.

Soon 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 years.  

There’s 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.

We 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.

While 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.

We 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.

Skiing 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