What is the first thing you notice when you take your first run of the day?
Trail conditions! What is underfoot? Is it corduroy? Or hardpack? Is the surface quiet or crunchy? Do you linger over morning coffee, or hope the lifts never close?
Typically, from the start of the season until the beginning of March, what makes the ski experience most days is snowmaking. After 50 years of perfecting the process, there can be great skiing before the first natural flakes fall from the sky. But now in March, the snow guns have been turned off for the season and the conditions you will ski most days are what groomers have been able to prepare for you overnight.
Ski areas throughout our region put a lot of time and effort into this.
Nobody does it better than the people at Okemo.
Certainly, Eb Kinney knows the drill. He's been a center of things at the Ludlow, Vt., area for 29 years and now, as the senior director of mountain operations, he oversees snowmaking and grooming plus a host of other duties that keep the place going day after day. It is his responsibility to get the trails covered as soon as temperatures allow in the fall, and monitor and manage the snow throughout the winter and then stretch good skiing well into spring.
Throughout the season, the groomers work in two shifts seven days a week to cover almost all of the mountain every night. Starting now, however, conditions can change markedly from day to day, even from dusk to midnight. According to Kinney, preparing a mountain for the best ski conditions is no longer the same routine night after night.
“With the warmer weather and softer snow, the practice now is to get as much done as early as you can,” Kinney said. “We shift the sequence of trail grooming at this time of year to work south to north on the mountain so the trails with the warmer exposure get the longest possible time to set up overnight. When temperatures are at or above freezing, we may assign more groomers to our 4:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. first shift.”
To prepare the area each day, Kinney relies on a grooming crew of 16 — 15 men and one woman — using a “pack-grooming” strategy: multiple snow cats working the same terrain in teams. On a typical overnight, there are two cats equipped with tillers working in tandem to break up and aerate the snow surface. Then come three cats that smooth the surface and prepare the ski product for the next day. There is a separate snow cat assigned to the snowboard and freestyle areas.
Kinney sets up a schedule each day to cover most of Okemo's 550 skiable acres. Experience helps make for a smoother process. Both of his shift supervisors have been working at the mountain for more than 20 years. Five of those who do grooming work at the ski area are year-round employees, while the rest are mostly returnees who work seasonal jobs locally other months of the years.
“Our groomers know what they are doing, and we include their input in how we do it. As a result, sometimes we change things up and include things like terrain features and moguls. We try to be creative in how we present the area each day.”
Bottom line: Kinney knows what skiers want.
“They want a ski surface that makes them think they are skiing on velvet,” Kinney said. “That is the name of the game."
There is an old saying that to enjoy Eastern skiing to its fullest, be prepared to hug a snowmaker and kiss a groomer.
It is now March.
LAKE PLACID NORDIC FESTIVAL
The largest cross country ski event each year in our area is the Lake Placid Loppet, which is set for March 16 at Mount Van Hoevenberg. This is the 34th year for the Loppet, which features a full 50k race and a 25k Kort Loppet. It is an all-comers event in both classic and skate styles. For details, check whitefacelakeplacid.com.
ST. PATRICK'S DAY AT WEST MOUNTAIN
What better way to spend St. Patrick's Day, March 17, than with a ski bargain?
Wear some green and get a four-hour ski ticket at West Mountain for $25.
There will also be giveaways on the hill and, of course, corned beef in the base lodge restaurant.
COUNCIL RACE WRAP
The New York Capital District Ski Council wrapped up its race season with two events last Sunday at West Mountain.
In the most competitive category, Albany Ski Club teammates Dave Vanderzee and Alfie Merchant split the two races, each one claiming a victory by less than one second. Vanderzee won a council race earlier this season at Oak Mountain, thus once again claiming the season-long Dick Walsh Memorial Trophy in the male open competition class.
Other season winners were Sharon Way of the Albany Ski Club in the women's open category, Mark Pavlus of the OC Ski Club in the male veterans class, Sally Vanderzee of the Albany Ski Club in the women's veterans class, Dean Palen of the Albany Ski Club in the men's super veterans and Deborah Pavlus in the women's super vets.
Phil Johnson can be reached at [email protected].