Snow lovers — here comes the groom
PHILLIPS — “Some people spend a lifetime looking for a corner office with a window,” said Dallas Steele, assistant superintendent of snow grooming for Sierra-at-Tahoe. “I’ve got a window office with corners.”
Steele, 43, has been grooming mountains around Lake Tahoe with heavy machinery, and sometimes by hand, for 24 seasons, 14 of them at Sierra.
“This can be a fun job,” he said, gazing out the huge front window of his snowcat as glittering snowflakes zigzagged past the headlights. “Being up here at night is pretty special. We basically own the mountain.”
Sierra recently complemented its staff of 20-plus groomers with the purchase of eight, state-of-the-art, French-Canadian-made Bombardier snowcats at a cost of about $240,000 each.
“Very few resorts run these,” Steele said. “A lot of people were scared of them (because) it’s a newer model with new technology.”
That price includes the snowcat, which is about as high-tech as one could imagine, as well as all the goodies attached to it. A joystick straight out of the local video arcade controls the front blade and rear flex tiller.
Steele refers to the tiller as the machine’s “bread and butter” for the important functions it plays in the grooming process.
A powerful heater blasts warm air into the cab and circulates it through the gigantic front window via internal heating lines. To combat the lonely nature of the job, the cat also includes a CD player and CB radio.
“These are the baddest machines in Tahoe,” Steele boasts, backing up his claim by cutting through a thick batch of hardening snow like it was butter, while narrowly avoiding clipping a tree. “There is no doubt in my mind. These things are bad.”
Sierra’s snow groomers work in two shifts through the night. Steele and the crew’s boss, John Morris, usually work the first shift from 3:30 p.m. to about midnight. A second shift covers midnight to about 10 a.m.
“Early in the season, we had to work a lot of long hours to get the mountain in shape and a lot of those hours were in a blinding snowstorm,” Steele said. “But the machines don’t stop. They keep on going.”
Steele has, using his term, “enjoyed” some harrowing experiences as a professional snow groomer, including being stuck at the resort for several days during a fierce snowstorm.
“The longest was a three-day stint back in the early ’80s,” he said. “It was Sierra Ski Ranch back then. It snowed so much the road was closed for about four days and we couldn’t get anywhere.”
There is a nightly routine when it comes to grooming the mountain.
“We have a certain pattern for every run, so we have to memorize these patterns,” he said, noting the neat formation of snowcats ahead of and behind him. “Sometimes we change them to make them more efficient (depending on the conditions). Right now the snow is soft and fluffy, but in a few days that stuff is going to be rock hard. That’s where the tillers really do their job. They can take the hard snow and turn it back into soft, fluffy powder.
“That’s why everybody’s always looking at their tiller, trying to get it as flat as possible.”
Added to the grooming mix at Sierra are several terrain parks requiring specialized talents and equipment. Included in the list of required grooming equipment are two pipe cutters which will be used to cut a half-pipe “when we get a little more snow,” Steele said.
“The guys maintain the rails every night, and it takes a while to do that stuff,” he said. “It requires constant hand work and snowcats. We are kind of known for (terrain parks), and we like to put out a good product. We stand behind quality here at Sierra-at-Tahoe.”
Of course, working with heavy machinery at night can be pretty hazardous. Steele and Morris emphasize safety to their crews, including hosting informational meetings on the eve of starting work.
“Everybody is always thinking safety,” Steele said. “That is our biggest concern.”
No particular experience is necessary to become a groomer, Steele noted, except to have a valid driver’s license and the willingness to do the job right.
“I can take anyone and put them in this machine and teach them to run it,” Steele said. “You basically have to have a willingness to learn. Some people catch on really quickly, within a couple of hours, and for some people it takes years.
“We need somebody who is willing to look at things with an open mind and have a good attitude, because it’s not all fun and games,” he added.
As if to confirm this, Steele points out how isolated this night job can be, never encountering guests or daytime resort employees.
“It seems like you don’t get a whole lot of recognition at this job,” he added. “You have to be happy with what you do. When I look back and I see a nice set of cords back there, I say, well, it’s good enough for me. That’s all you can really do.”
Chad Sellmer is a freelance writer living in South Lake Tahoe. He may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — A flash flood watch has been extended for the Lake Tahoe area.