Nocturnal cat on a leash leaves corduroy on mountain
Long after the lifts have closed and the skiers and snowboarders have retired to their comfortable beds, nocturnal creatures come to life on the empty slopes of Heavenly Ski Resort.
Chipmunks, coyotes and pine martens scurry along in search of crumbs and morsels left behind by the day’s visitors. Among the opportunists, a cat of gargantuan proportions creeps through the woods swallowing bumps and berms along the way.
The purr of 15 diesel-powered Bombardier snow cats resonates through Heavenly’s bowls and glades on a nightly schedule. The pack works together, leaving a perfectly smooth surface in its wake. Ski racers call it corduroy, Jonny Moseley could call it his ruin.
One cat is specially designed to groom the steep, mogul-infested Eastbowl run beneath Heavenly’s tram. It works like a cat on a leash.
Last week, and for the first time this season, the cat was let out to play.
Under a starry sky, Heavenly’s Grooming Manager Bill Colvin wraps a sling to a concrete post near the top of Gunbarrel Express chair lift. Attaching the steel cable from his cat to the sling on the post, he starts his night of “yo-yoing.”
“This will take all night to get this finished,” Colvin says, his voice quivering under the vibrations of the motor.
With his left hand, Colvin lays on the two control sticks, commanding the machine’s speed and direction. The cat lurches forward to what seems like the edge of the world.
“Got your seat belt on?” Colvin asks.
I nod, grabbing the strap around my waist and the handle on the door.
“Just checking,” he says.
We round the crest and head for the lights glimmering 1,850 vertical feet below on Tahoe’s south shore. I check my seat belt a second time.
“It’s a completely controlled environment with the winch and it really helps you up the hill,” he says. “And it leaves such a beautiful finish.”
Colvin’s right hand works autonomously on another lever, moving the blade that cuts the moguls in front of him. He moves the blade as if it were an extension of his arm.
It’s so steep that our feet are propped up against the bottom of the windshield, stopping our bodies from giving way to gravity and flying through the glass.
It’s slow but steady until, just beyond the halfway mark, an alarm screeches in the cockpit. Colvin, who’s been working at Heavenly for 14 years, ignores the warning, which signifies the end of the cable.
“Hold on,” he says, calmly. “Here comes the E-ticket.”
Again, I nod.
A twist of the control levers and the cat pendulums across the slope. In a second flat, we’re facing uphill. Reclining with the pitch, we start the slow push for the top only to turn around and repeat the pattern.
On the third pass, a tiny crease of snow is stringing out behind the tiller, leaving a slight blemish on the flawless, smooth slope. Colvin watches it form in his rearview mirror. He shakes his head, dissatisfied with the outcome.
“You do it so much that you pride yourself in doing a good job,” he said, looking back at the ridge. “This is my signature so I want it to be right.”
On the next pass, he cleans up after his “cookies” – the chunks of snow that were left behind. After the top half of the run is as flat as a board, Colvin grooms the bottom half with the help of a second cat and a longer cable. It’s a slow process and the yo-yoing will continue for another six hours, until daylight.
But Colvin said he enjoys the challenge of smoothing the rutted face of the mountain, and working alone on the all-night shift.
“Part of the appeal is that you can ski every morning and test your product,” he said.
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