Saturday, November 28, 2009

Grooming 101.2

Where to Really Begin
On My Mountain, we always start at the beginning. I'm not trying to be funny, it's just that "the beginning" has meant many different things over the years. Early in my nights behind the sticks, the Grooming Program was pretty necessity.

Oh, we always started with Work Orders, but back when I started grooming in the early 80's, Grooming was more "Reactive" than ProActive. The technology just hadn't matured in those days. When the fleet was mostly Gas Powered Tucker Sno-Cats towing Rolling Stock, there were many nights when conditions didn't allow much of the Work Orders to be completed.

When the Tuckers couldn't climb the mountain anymore, we'd move on to the next project on the Work Orders, and hope that the abandoned trails would "set up" enough so that we could come back later and finish the job. On the nights when that didn't work out, dawn brought mornings that Ski Patrol see when the Groomers couldn't get the job done, Patrol would have to "Boot Pack" the unfinished edges of our work to ensure our guests' safety. Man I pitied those guys on those days!

By the Mid-80's most of the fleet had been upgraded to Thiokol 3700 Hydromaster Groomers. For a few years, the Hydros, powered with Allis Chalmers straight-six Diesels without mufflers, still didn't have Tillers, so Rolling Stock still made the finished surface. Rolling Stock was lots of work, even when it wasn't doing always had to be Dug Out and repositioned atop the pack. Every Snow Day meant all the Rolling Stock had to be moved up. Lots of shoveling, getting in and out of the tractors, and ending the shift with some real Ditch Digging Labor...we really earned our meager paychecks in those days!

Finally, Thiokol sold their Snowcat business and the new owner, John Delorean of Stainless Steel Sports Car fame, bought the Company and designed and added Tillers along with V8 Caterpillar Power, giving birth to the 3700C Model...Sayonara Rolling Stock! Those were great days!

Renamed DMC, the DeLorean Motor Company brought evolutionary change to the breed before Mr DeLorean ran afoul of the Law, and he sold the Company again. Now know as LMC, Logan Manufacturing Company, they soldiered along until Bombardier Groomers arrived in the High Sierra.

Bombardier's were another Quantum Leap in Groomer Evolution. The Mid-Engine, Cab Forward design was as big a step as the one from Tucker to Thiokol had been.

The next improvement proved to be the watershed idea that changed the whole ball game. Bombardier developed their Flex Tiller...the rest is history, as they say.

Now, Groomers could work from the Work Orders or "List" with impunity. Now only breakdowns, and weather could derail the Plan. Production rose by a factor of Two...unless the snow was flying. More snow on the mountain is a Double Whammy. more snow to pack, and harder, thus slower climbing...there go those Production Gains again...

Enter Winches...OK this is the Tech Evolution that finally "levels the playing field" LMC first brought Winches to Sierra Ski Resorts. The WinchCat was a standard Free Groomer with a hyrdoststic winch mounted on the back of the cat. Derisively named "Phantom Tollbooths", the WinchCat was positioned at the top of a steep trail, where the operator whould push up a big pile called a pad, and dig the tracks into the pad. the bare stinger was lowered into the pad, and the winch was activated. The winch operator payed out some winch cable, and a second Grooming Cat would hook to the cable by way of a large Eye mounted to the Push Frame of the Forward Blade.

This cat, the "Yoyo" did the grooming, the winch held the Yoyo on the hill. The Winch didn't actually tow the Yoyo up the hill, but held tension on the winch cable so the Yoyo could groom uphill without digging in. It was tedious for both operators, and ripe for disaster. The Yoyo only groomed going uphill, backing down under winch tension every pass...not very efficiant, but better than "going around" like a free cat, and the winch assisted down passes turned out perfectly most nights.

In those days, all grooming machines were prototypes, really...grooming crews were developers of the technology, as well as Guinea Pigs. Twice the labor, and twice the equipment, but still production improved.

A few years later, the last piece of the puzzle was added. The Tower Winch was born. Adding an overhead boom the turned 360 degrees, retired the Phantom Tollbooth, and now two winch operators were available. The WinchCat Operator works solo, hooking his cable to an anchor and grooming up and down the run, held fast by the winch...Production...way up, again.

With the technology settled, now the List guides the crews to high levels of performance, hindered only by Mother Nature's Bounty. When a fierce Winter Storm is lashing the Mountain, production suffers, but compared to twenty-five years ago, the work we get done is still amazing, given the conditions.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Grooming 101.1

What To Do?
How do Ski Resorts decide what to groom every night? Before the Swing Shift hits the Mountain, Work Orders must be made. Grooming costs a bucketload of cash, so there isn't any room for "flyin' by the seat of the pants" in the 21st Century. New equipment and new realities in the Industry have retired the old "That Looks About Right" method at all but the smallest Mom&Pop Ski Hills.

The Work Orders are compiled with input from several sources.

First the Grooming Boss has an idea of what needs done, given what didn't get done the previous night. Most Secondary Trails get groomed every-other night. Weekends, the Mountain tries to groom every groomable acre unless it's storming. All Primary Trails are groomed every night, unless the mountain is just barely open and snow conservation is a priority. All Snowmaking Areas get groomed whenever Snowmaking occurs on them.

Equal in weight is the input from the Lift Operations Forman. His crew of Lift Operators is responsible for helping the Mountain's Guests interface safely with the lifts. The lifties maintain the Ramps and Maze Areas during the day. The Forman adds his Wish List to the Work Orders. Lift Ramps are repaired and tilled on Swing Shift to maximize the amount of freezing they receive. Longer freeze means longer until skier-caused ruts begin to form near the bottom of the ramps. As the season progresses and more snow accumulates, ramps are lengthened, and made less steep, until they are perfect. At the bottom terminals, the Mazes or Line Areas are enlarged so our guests can line and load our chairs with the least amount of fuss and muss.

When a total rebuild is called for, the lift Operations Foreman lets the Swing Shift Ramp Groomer know where, and they work together to make the ramp the best it can be. If there's snow in the forecast, the Ramps still are done on Swing Shift, and the Graveyard Crew cleans them off and puts a fresh till on the Ramps and Mazes just before the Guests arrive at the least that's the way it goes in a Perfect World.

Ski Patrol also has something to contribute to the Work Orders. Patrol are the Groomers' eyes on the hill during the day, and they find the wrinkles that need ironing that aren't apparent to a groomer in the dark of night. Patrol has a vested interest in the Work Orders...they need to pull all their signage and closures that might be impacted by grooming ops overnight. Life is better when all oars pull together.

Now there's still a few more Mountain Departments that need work done by the Grooming Crew...The Race Department issues a Season Calendar every season, so Race Dept. requests don't catch us with our pants down. The Race Team need different runs groomed early on Swing Shift for their Early Training on the Mountain, too.

The Marketing Department has scheduled events that need a little Grooming Help from time to time. DemoDays, photo shoots, News Crews to ride with a Groomer...the list is as varied as it is endless. Over the years, I built Bars with my snowcat for Après-Ski Parties, built launch pads for New Years Eve Fireworks Shows, towed brand new cars and trucks up the mountain for Sponsor's Events, and towed them off the hill the next morning...there's never a dull moment when Marketing calls!

Just a couple more 'till we're done!
The Maintenance Departments need our help from time to time. The Lift Maintenance Crew has their own cat equipped with a hoist, forklift, and welder. They let us know when and where they'll be taking their cat so we'll be able to follow along after them and clean up their mess. There's always a note on the Work Orders about these projects, so we can follow up before opening.

Building Maintenance can have the worst jobs on the hill...every once in a while, they'll need to dig up a pipe or conduit that's in the ground. The Groomers push all the snow away from the area in question, and hang around to help the backhoe over the snow to the site. Once the Maintenance Guys wrap it up, the Groomers hear back to the scene to cover the scene of the crime so to speak...trying to keep the clean snow on top is murder in the dark!

The last one is fun, but it's a pain in the ass too because this call always comes when you're all done with your shift and headed back to the shop! Security hails the Grooming Crew by 2-Way and say: "We've got a vehicle stuck near..." Now the last thing a groomer wants to do at the end of a good shift is tow some dufus out of a fresh groomed Over the Snow Vehicle Road! We only get a couple of these a year...usually early season, and often as not, it's a new employee showing up for their first day of work! "Well, I drove in last time I was here!"

It's not easy for tired groomers to "suffer fools lightly"'s not in our written Job Description, but it's understood...kinda like a Gentleman's Agreement. At least there's always a good story to tell afterwards!

That's the story of the Work Orders. Armed with the Work Orders, the Plan is in place for the night. That's when my job gets interesting! Things change, cats break, guests go missing and searches are mounted, or we get 12 inches of "Partly Cloudy"...all these things play into the mix. The orders must be completed by opening.

What about the Terrain Parks, The Half Pipe, and SkierCross Course, you ask? Well, my Mountain has a Grooming Crew and a Park Crew. We work along side one another, and together when the chips are down. I'm the Free Groomer Guy, those guys are the Park Crew...I'm not that Guy.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Grooming 101

Getting Started
Any week now, TruckeeDave will climb back into his Prinoth BR350 Groomer and return to his Mountain tops. Because CorduroyPlanet was hatched in the Summer, I've written about the weather most of the time. Once I'm grinding around my Mountain again, the Grooming Columns should write themselves. Shooting the breeze about weather forecasts is deathly boring for most normal human beings unless their livelihood depends on the weather. Ski Resorts are not too different from actual Farms...both depend to a large degree on Mother nature's cooperation. Farms produce food, feed, fuel or timber products. Ski Resorts produce Skier Visits.

At the most basic level, Ski Resorts today sell a safe chairlift ride up a safe, well groomed hill. Resorts pretty much run the lifts and groom the slopes as a "Loss Leader" to ensure that there will be plenty of customers for the Food&Beverage Outlets, Ski Shops, Ski School, Hospitality&Hotel, Day Care, and Photo/Video Operations. The Grooming Crew makes the physical product that attracts most of the Customer Base. On busy days, big crowds put money in the bank, but on slower mid-week days, the margins are made off the mountain, not on it.

Grooming My Mountain occupies every hour that the Mountain's Guests are not on the hill. The Swing Shift gets to work a half hour before the lifts close for the day, and they groom until the shift change at midnight. The Graveyard Shift finishes the Grooming and hightails it off the Mountain a few minutes before the Guests load onto their first chair of the day.

Where to Begin?
Snowcats are powerful machines today, and they are quite expensive. Because these machines look like a bulldozer and work like a bulldozer, the casual observer often assumes that these cats are rugged like a bulldozer. If only that were true!

Snowcats must work like the 'dozer, but they also must float atop steep, deep powder snow so the operator can reach the top of the mountain in order to get the mountain into shape for the day. These disparate needs are cause for much compromise. Heavy enough to push like a 'dozer, yet light enough to stay on top of the snow, and climb the steepest trails and roads. Today's Groomers make the most of the latest technology to stay in the middle of the opposing demands of the workplace.

What Is a Groomer?
At the most fundamental level, Modern Grooming Machines are oil pumps on two tracks, with front and rear implements, an operator cabin, and a power source to make it all run.

Today's Snowcats are Hydrostatic Tractors. The Diesel Engine turns a series of Oil Pumps via the gearbox. These pumps pressurize and pump Hydrostatic Fluid to the Hydrostatic Motors that power the Tracks, the Tiller's Cutter Bars, and the Winch Drum...depending on the type of Groomer. Every machine also has Auxiliary pumps that run the Auxiliary Hydraulics which actuate the Implements front and rear. Again pressurized oil is pumped to Hydraulic Rams that move the Blade and it's Wings up front, and lifts, lowers, and controls the Tiller at the rear of the Groomer, and swings the Winch Boom. High pressure oils, flexible hoses that carry these oils, and movable actuators, coupled with High Vibration Levels are the recipe for leaks and failures, both which are best avoided.

Each Groomer or Operator, begins his shift at the Time Clock. The Swing Shift guys Punch In, and head out to their Snowcats to check out their cats, and warm them up for their shifts.

The "Checkout" is akin to aviation's "Pre-Flight" or "Walkaround" The operator, does visual and physical checks to ensure the machine is ready to work hard for the duration of the shift, and the shift after his. The Operator checks each fluid reservoir to ensure that there's enough of each fluid for the tractor to run a.s specified. Engine Oil, Engine Coolant, Hydrostatic Fluid, and Auxiliary Hydraulic Fluid all are topped up and recorded on the Checkout Sheet. It's always a good idea to take a look in the diesel fuel filler at the beginning of the shift, one minute to top off the tank can save a half hour of lost productivity later.

Continuing the walkaround, the operator checks all the Hydraulic Hoses and Fittings to ensure they are tightly fastened, aren't leaking fluid, and are free of kinks and cuts. All fasteners need to be in place and everything must be battened down. I teach my Rookies how to do the Checkout, how to fill out the Checkout Sheets, and to grab and wiggle all the fittings and hoses on the Cat. Looking for oil sheens or puddles will help find leaky fittings or hoses, so repairs can be made before the cat is on the hill.

One all the oils are accounted for, the operator starts the engine, turns on the Cab Heater and Fans, and continues the Checkout...Tires, Wheel Bearing Covers, Frames and Axles all are scrutinized. Tracks are examined for torn Belts, missing Bolts, Backing Plates, Tire Guides, and Lacings and Lacing Bolts. Windshield Wipers, Lights, 2-Way Radios, Tiller Flaps, Combs, and Flags are checked and recorded.

Satisfied that all is well with his tractor, the Operator can settle in for the shift. This is when I hook up my iPod, it's Charger/FM Transmitter, and stow my coffee cup, lunchbox, and backpack. Once I tune in the Stereo, I'm ready to roll!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Arise You Turkey-Fied Zombies!

Most of Sunday
Except for the ragged flesh falling off my bones and the dark sunken eyes, I am a Zombie today. I don't have any uncontrolled compulsion to drag a foot stiff-legged down a dark road in search of human flesh, or moan unintelligibly while dragging said extremity. In fact, I've barely made it out of the horizontal today! I did sit bolt-upright when the Network switched to the Raider Game and they rallied in the last minute to win!

Two days of baking and cooking the Family Thanksgiving at the Ancestral Digs took it out of my tired old bones. The family chewin' the fat over Roast Turkey and all the Fixins was priceless as always. No better way to spend a nice Saturday in Fall has ever been devised. Ski Industry Mavens understand the Holidays are by necessity, celebrated in a Catch as Catch Can manner...dates matter less than getting the whole cast on stage and on their marks at the same time.

The Siskiyou Wing bought their first home this month, and my youngest sister and her husband bought a new-to-them Mini-SUV. SisterSweetly is moving across the road, and I'm obsessing over the weather. We reminisced about the 100th Birthday Party we attended the last time the family was all in one place... Less priceless was viewing the Video I shot of the whole semi-mundane affair...

A 1:04:34 B-Reel Yawner...and that was before the tryptophan kicked in. (Umm, scientists dispute the Tryptophan/Turkey Torpor Connection, citing the heavy amounts of carbohydrates and alcohol usually consumed with the turkey as the more likely drowsiness inducer)

I pressed the camcorder into service as a way to share our Holiday Table with our Aunt back in Ohio. OK I thought, My Mom's Sister might find it endearing... (After seeing 'the rushes' I'm thinking it could be of some value to Aunt Kate when she suffers from Insomnia!)

Sunday, I spent all afternoon barely acknowledging the Sunday Paper, and didn't read it per se...oh, I scanned the adds for Black Friday (Week) Deals, but newspapers don't slake my thirst for timely news anymore. Quicker clicks on a laptop deliver more news, faster than I ever thought possible. I didn't avoid the WeatherWeb though, I checked in with the Reno and Sacramento AFD's and the outlook is for drier and warmer days leading to the actual Thanksgiving Thursday. Mother Nature bats last, and to these eyes, it looks like she isn't even out of the dugout yet.

Next week, December arrives...let's hope Ma Nature has chosen her bat and made it out to the On Deck Circle and up to the plate in time to smack one outta the park!

Last week, I did read the Sunday Still, the SF Chronicle's Tom Stienstra said: "You can expect a good chance of unsettled weather, and likely rain with snow in the mountains, around Dec. 1 and Dec. 16."

I'm rootin' for ya Tom! My Mountain needs plenty of lovin' from Mother Nature, and in early December, too!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Falling Down?

Friday's blustery storm is a memory in the High Sierra now. Fresh snow greeted the sliders who ventured up to the High Country for a Bluebird Day on the slopes. Reports from around Tahoe Basin say around a foot landed and stayed on the slopes. Snowmaking temps were attained sometime around midnight, and snowmaking crews picked up where Mother Nature left off. Favorable temperatures persisted through mid-day as well.

Sacramento's AFD warns that all is not yet well in Paradise however:


CorduroyPlanet's Glossary for Non-Weather-Geeks

AFD= Area Forecast Discussion

ECMWF= European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting. Operational references in forecast discussions typically refer to the ECMWF's medium-range forecast model.

GFS= A numerical computer model of the atmosphere that is run out to 384 hours, four times per day.

Sorry, I haven't found the definition for this one yet.

Target Opening Day Again
My Mountain will open in time for Thanksgiving. Time will tell just how open we will be. Everything depends on how many hours of good snowmaking temps are ahead this week. Looking at the webcams by the light of day shows my suspicions to be true, most of last night's snow ended up out in the trees, in swales, or creeks, and not on the trails where it's most needed.

Judging from the AFD above, it's going to be nip and tuck for snowmaking next week. Stay tuned.