SKI LINES – While natural snowfall in our area has been in short supply this winter and the amount of terrain available to skiers up to now has been limited, the quality of the sliding has been surprisingly good. It is the snowmakers who have made this possible.
It is the groomers who have made it fun.
Groomers are invisible to most of us. These are the folks who do their work mainly at night, driving the all-terrain, big-track machines that push around the snow on trails, then cure the coverage to provide the corduroy that most of us love to ski.
Most groomers are guys who grew up playing with toy trucks and tractors and maybe reading the children’s classic about Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel. But it is not necessarily so. The guy part, I mean. Take Sierra Olbert, for instance.
This 30 year old from Newcomb is in her third year as a night shift groomer at Gore. Want to see her work? If you are at the area early, you may spot her parking her rig around 8 a.m. when she comes in from her grooming shift that began at 11:30 p.m. She’s been out on the hill solo overnight, maneuvering the groomer to repair the trails from the skier traffic of the day before and preparing the terrain for the day ahead.
Granted, Olbert and fellow groomer Lori Phoebe Benton are exceptions. It is mostly guys who drive groomers. The other 15 on the crew at Gore are male. At Killington, the largest area in the Northeast, there are 37 groomers on staff. All are male.
But according to Olbert, these days there is no reason it has to be that way.
“I love being out on the mountain alone at night,” Olbert said. “It is a beautiful setting. I’m warm in the cabin. I work sitting down. And I get great satisfaction from the job I do. Conditions are always changing. You must be creative and love the challenge of problem solving. I am always learning something new.”
“Anyone — man or woman — who can ski or snowboard would be able to physically do the job,” Olbert said.
These days, a grooming machine is a sophisticated piece of heavy equipment. These diesel-powered giants typically are 30 feet long from tip to tail, are 20 feet wide and fully loaded weigh more than 26,000 pounds. But it is surprisingly user friendly. The controls are hydraulically driven. The left hand steers the machine, while the joy stick in the right hand controls the blades that push around the snow and the tiller that grooms the surface.
It is a thumb and wrist operation mainly, according to Olbert.
“Carpal tunnel is the major job hazard,” Olbert said.
It wasn’t always that way. According to the late John Fry in his book “The Story of Modern Skiing”, the first grooming device was introduced in the early 1950s at Colorado’s Winter Park ski area. Called the Bradley Packer-Grader, it was a 400-pound roller that was led downhill by a single skier. The roller was then hooked to a T-bar and hauled back up the hill. The groomer “was under constant threat of being groomed himself should he stumble or fall,” noted Fry.
THREE YEARS ON THE HILL
Olbert started as a groomer at Gore three years ago. She was a three-sport athlete in high school. Her family goes back 11 generations in the Adirondacks. Her dad was a physical education teacher in Long Lake and her mom worked at Gore for 38 years. After high school, Olbert lived in Maryland and Virginia for several years, where she was a professional horse trainer. Back in the Adirondacks, she helps with the family Cloudsplitter Outfitters and store in Newcomb during the bad sliding months. Like her colleague Benton, who co-own the Square Eddy Rafting company and has a massage therapy practice, grooming is a seasonal occupation. In winter, both women are part of five-person shift teams. Olbert operates a free groomer working primarily green circle and blue square terrain.
With the World University Games freestyle events at Gore this winter, Olbert has had the opportunity to work alongside Gore’s terrain parks manager Bryant Demarsh, helping out with the specialized equipment and competition features being built and maintained by a Canadian firm brought in for their expertise with these events. It is a learning curve and part of the challenge that she likes about the job.
The work has its natural rewards, too.
“In the middle of the night, I share the trails with the deer and fox and coyotes, and the biggest snowshoe rabbit I have ever seen,” said Olbert. “The coolest thing is coming up the Sunway trail with a full moon over the Saddle Lodge ahead.
“In the morning when my shift is done and the lifts open to the public, I like to ski or snowboard on the trails I’ve groomed. It is a validation of the work I’ve done.”
The next time you ski, especially in winters like this when nature has been a stingy partner, remember the people whose work is making it all possible. There is an old adage: “Hug a snowmaker, kiss a groomer.” These days, maybe just a thumbs up and a wave will do.
LAKE PLACID LOPPET
After two years of cancellations due to COVID-19 concerns, the Lake Placid Loppet is back at Mt. Van Hoevenberg this winter. The popular long-distance citizen’s race run on trails from the 1980 Winter Olympics will be held on Sunday, Feb. 26. It is an all-comers event. There is a 50k competition and a 25k Kort Loppet, plus citizens races at 12k, 6k and 3k.
Registration is open now at www.mtvanhoevenberg.com/events/lake-placidloppet.
Harold McAfee, the World War II combat veteran and for many years a fixture on the ski trails at West Mountain, passed away over the summer after a brief illness. He served in the legendary 10th Mountain Division and, after moving to Queensbury after retirement, could be seen regularly mornings on the the slopes at West. He would have turned 100 this month.
BUNNY RUNNER ARRIVES AT ROYAL
Bunny Runner, the new magic carpet lift at Royal Mountain, made its debut last weekend. Located just outside the base lodge, the 150-foot long conveyor track on gentle terrain is designed to help youngsters just learning to ski or board. With 100% snowmaking coverage, Royal has been fully open for its weekend and holidays operation in the new year.
Phil Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org