Saturday, August 22, 2009


Recalling my Tucker Sno-Cat days was bittersweet. Those were carefree days on the Mountain. My only responsibility was to show up on time, and do what I was told. I was too clueless to make anything up as I went along, and fortunately I held onto my job long enough to fall in love with grooming and the Mountain.

Soon, I was allowed to operate a newer style cat...a genuine Thiokol 2100 Diesel. This machine was a precursor to the Groomers of today. This machine had the basic form factor of modern grooming cats...two tracks with a blade out front, a small centerline mounted cab and a rear lift frame for hanging rear implements. This cat was built in the 70's and Tillers hadn't made the scene yet. Compactor Bars and Tow Hitches still brought up the rear.

The 2100 was a friction steered cat, with a conventional drive and clutch. This old beast had been abused and modified aplenty, she smelled of hot oil and diesel soot, and was fitted with a manual transmission and a "Reverser Box" (a second stick shift, to select between forward and reverse in whatever gear the main tranny was in) The auxiliary hydraulics were molasses-slow, and steering the cat while smoothly using the blade was a real trick. I want to say it was an 8-Way Blade...alas, memory fades... The steeper the terrain, the tougher the going. Holding this cat back on steep, deep runs was a workout that would have a Famous Exercise Video series named for it today...good for upper arm definition, for sure.

Even as rough as this old cat was, it really was a quantum leap over the Tuckers. On the steeper, off-camber climbs, it was magic at the time...after all, many times the fleet of Tuckers towing implements could only make the climb a few times before the snow was too worked to keep giving the Tucker tracks purchase, and the fleet would retreat down the hill to make passes on gentler slopes.

The better climbing of the "real" cat opened new vistas to conquer, and demanded that new skills be learned.

At the time, the Mountain had only one hydrostatic groomer, and it was a thing of beauty for it's time. An Allis Chalmers six cylinder diesel Thiokol 3700 in the requisite black and red livery. The A/C straight six had a straight exhaust, without a muffler. The stack pierced the sheet metal engine cover, and came right off the turbo. It elbowed straight up, only two feet in front of the windshield. When you "had your foot in it" making the pumps scream on a long climb, it would maintain a pretty blue flame atop the stack along with a tremendous howl. This was the Boss' ride. Rookies need not apply. The season was 81/82...still no tillers on the Mountain...and no chance of getting any stick time in that cat.

I took a job at the neighboring hill so I could get my stick time, I worked five nights a week at my Mountain, and my nights off I drove the neighboring hill's 3700. I kept that up right thru the season until the spring doldrums set in. I didn't always get to drive the hydro, about half the time I was driving a diesel powered rubber track Tucker with a clunky automatic transmission...what a beast! Once my neighbor hill boss started to trust me, he gave me plenty of elbow room.

During one huge storm period, we abandoned the neighbor hill altogether, and put that cat on the county highway. The Local Fire Department had called, there was a possible heart attack victim up the highway, and it was impassable for the ambulance and too deep for the Fire Dept. snowmobile.

We grabbed some chain, and groomed the two miles of the highway so the fire dept sled could get to the heart patient. We groomed out to the Interstate, and as we roared past the Highway Lodge, we were looking down from five feet above the cars in the lot! This was the storm that spawned the fatal avalanche at Alpine Meadows in 1982.

That avalanche killed seven, and trapped a young college student, Anna Conrad in her demolished locker room. Anna was rescued some days later, and returned a year later to ski Alpine again. I remember waking up at home with the TV news showing snow cats digging out the avalanche debris at the Alpine Meadows was the first time I ever saw groomers on TV.

I learned to run that hydro and before long, I got in trouble with my newly learned "skills" one snow day on my home mountain.

The Ski Patrol Leader and some other patrollers needed a lift to the top of the Mountain to run another avalanche control route. My boss was having breakfast, so I offered my services. His cat was parked outside Lift Ops, idling...I shut off my Tucker, saddled up, and headed in the driver's seat...with a big ol' grin on my face. About halfway up, the scolding radio call crackled thru the cab...I stammer an apology/reason kinda thing, and the Patrol Leader takes pity on me, keys the mic and pleads my case. I made the top of the Mountain, the A/C was done, and I kept the Boss' ride on the cat tracks, and out of trouble. I took a lot of crap for my stunt, but I started earning a little respect that morning, too.

Leaving the Nest
After being part of the Pack for most of the season, the Bosses started giving the quick studies a little more rope, so to speak. There were two of us...The Bosses were trying to broaden our horizons, so they could leave us to our own devices whenever they had a project to do that we couldn't help with...the heavy lifting and the detail stuff...mostly building ramps, digging around lift terminals and buildings, building roads...the skilled jobs that we'd learn as time and talent allowed.

One run I was to master was an intermediate cruiser that had a short steep black diamond run in. It was always good for a little slide when the snow was deep or soft. Eventually groomers learn to lust for those toboggan passes, they're the only true thrill on the hill that's not extra-legal. Before we started seeking these thrills, we approached with caution...and a little down right fear.

I was working this run solo one night. There was a couple of feet of fresh snow on it, and I was about mid-way thru the job when things got a little scary. This run groomed from left to right...mostly in the fall line, though there was a little sidehill after the initial steep pitch. Creeping over the breakover, I let things get too fast, too quickly. There were some large, frozen bumps hidden beneath the fresh powder, and at toboggan speed, things got really bumpy. That's when my knee bumped the splitter box into neutral, and I accelerated like the Millenium Falcon entering Hyper Space!

The cat wasn't the only thing racing! My heart rate passed red line in milliseconds, followed closely by my adrenalin level. It was a helpless feeling as the heavy 2100 bounded down the hill headed towards the trees and a lift tower. I was riding a rodeo bronco in free-fall! I don't know what possessed me to bury the blade, but something had prepared me to do it. The fountain of fresh snow ricocheting off the cat's blade looked like and old-time photograph from the Placer Mining Days...a huge blast of material capable of mowing down most anything in it's path blasted out in front of me! I made a huge trench, right down the middle of the steep, and right across the fresh-groomed passes I'd just made. Thinking about that trip, I don't have any memory of redoing the whole run, though I'm sure I did.

Eventually I realized that I never could have gotten into the trees, much less that lift tower. Gravity was on my team, and it would steer me right, though it took some more experience on my part to realize it. That's the night I learned what an ally fear could be. Years later I put it to work every season...keeping my rookies on the straight and narrow...just like my Boss did with me, that night, on that run, in that old Thiokol.

Four years passed, and I was the Boss...that old 2100 was retired as were all but one Tucker. The '76 with the rubber tracks was our back up rig and utility hauler. I didn't have but one or two rookies to teach, and we had three or four hydros, including our first Cat-Powered 3700C. Tillers now adorned the rear of the machines, and the manufacturer's nameplate said: DeLorean...yup, Back to the Future, DeLorean. No longer Thiokol red&black, the new C Models were painted orange. They would have been awesome in brushed stainless steel like DeLorean's sports cars!

Cleaning up around the Vehicle Shop, pushing four feet of snow off in to the trees, I plowed the beacon right off the top of that old 2100, left abandoned for the winter, in the trees behind the Shop...I didn't scratch the sheet metal, I just broke the beacon's plastic lens off. I felt bad for the old beast...but, I smiled and remembered the night I dug that big trench.

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