Saturday, December 5, 2009


With a tip of my hat to Carly Simon...

It's started again...that anticipating/wishing/hoping/praying/buzzing in the skiing/snowboarding/big wave surfing/weather-geeking universes!

According to all the AFD's up and down the West Coast, the next big chance for Pattern Change is on it's way towards the forecast area. Friday morning's Reno ADF called the coming events: "the perfect recipe for snow" welcome is that news? Pretty darn...

Here I am, still cooling my heels at the Ancestral Digs, gathering online intel day in, day out, doing the myriad chores and projects to fill my days of waiting.

The Bay Area TV News folks are practically gushing in anticipation of this storm coming to town. Breathlessly they run through their forecast sound bites, and weave in their hoped-for announcement of the 2009/2010 Maverick's Surf Contest. Fifty foot waves are possible by Tuesday at Mavericks they gush. Good gosh, what a way to kick off Winter! Thanks are in order for all the Mountain Folk who've been doing their Snow Dances! Here's hoping those aligning models trumpet the arrival of a real El Niño Style Winter Season!

Getting Ready
Thursday afternoon, the FedEx Guy stopped by the Ancestral Digs to deliver my new Handheld Device. After hours of online research, trips to Geek Emporiums, and the local Verizon Wireless Store, I decided on an iPod Touch for my mobile internet solution.

The Touch is the Apple iPhone...sans the phone. Verizon, my carrier released the Motorola Droid last month, and driven by Google's Android Operating System, this Smartphone will remake the Smartphone Playing Field. This device was my number one choice, but I opted to wait to jump into a Smartphone Plan until the impact of Google's arrival on the Mobile Landscape plays out. To get all the cool advantages of Smartphones, you've got to get a Data Plan in addition to your monthly Cell Phone Plan. I'm too cheap to commit to doubling my monthly phone bill, especially since I don't really need Mobile Internet except during Grooming Season.

I spent all of my Thursday night (and a good portion into Friday morning) loading the Touch with handy "Aps", and synchronizing it with my computer. Even across platforms this was all enjoyable, not the giant cluster of hassles of a few years ago. Apple's Ap Store boasts 100,000 applications for the iPhone/iPod Touch today. Dozens and dozens of Weather Aps are available, with more choices coming online weekly.

In the coming weeks, as I become more adept at operating this little handheld computer that plays tunes, I'll be able to communicate right from the operator's throne of my Snowcat! That's the bonus, fun side of this device. Looking at Real-Time Weather Radar and Satellite Images on the Mountain will be invaluable! Getting up to the second intel about what's coming our way...without having to get off my Mountain to get in front of a Mountain network computer, is going to be Golden! Massaging the Back-Up Plan will become proactive, instead of reactive. This is going to save hours of grief, and make my crew even more effective.

One night this season, I expect my cat will go down...just a hydraulic hose or fitting, or maybe a relay will sideline me for an hour or so while the Graveyard Mechanic works on the problem to get me going again. If I'm in range of the Mountain's WiFi, I will write this blog from my broken cat!

If you're following @CorduroyPlanet on Twitter, expect an occasional Tweet from the seat of my cat as well...this is going to be too much fun!

More Lost Time
From the "It happens every Fall Division"...
So I'm playing with the iPod, while not watching the NewsFeed from FoxNews on the TV,and scrolling through my freshly imported Bookmarks, I clicked on my link to the Half Moon Bay Buoy from the NDBC (National Data Buoy Center) to see if Surf Contest Conditions were brewing. In an instant the page loads and says: "The page you requested is not found" I should have expected this...I looked at all my Buoy Pages just a month ago in preparation for Crab Season...all six were good to go.

I end up whining about this practice the Government goes through every Fall. I thought they change these pages because they have excess time on their hands, but as I started to revise my Bookmarks, I noticed that Google is now a major part of the NDBC Product.

All the Buoys are on Google Maps now. Typically, you zoom in on the World Map until you can resolve the little piece of ocean you want, and hover the cursor over the colorful specks representing the different Stations (read buoys) until the buoy you're looking for is on it's link and you get to the Buoy's Page where the data is displayed...Whew!

I must have stumbled onto the NDBC's Annual Revision Festival half way through the process...of my six Bookmarked Buoys, four are the new-style Google-fied feeds: Point Reyes, Bodega Bay, San Francisco, and Half Moon Bay...just in time for the Big Surf Contest. All told, I shot 30 minutes resetting my Buoy Bookmarks...not as bad as I feared...side note: Bodega Bay's Station 46013 Buoy has been down since October, and the Coast Guard is working to get it into their Buoy Maintenance Schedule, and back online.

A quick look at the Buoy Data shows seas between 9 and 10ft this Friday 12/4/09. The Local TV WeatherGushers, are all abuzz about the Big Swell forecast to arrive Tuesday, and the possible call to arms of the 25 World's Greatest Big Wave Surfers. The Mavericks Surf Contest Window has been open since November 1st. When the Organizers decide the swell is huge enough, the call goes out to the 25, and they have 24 hours to get to Half Moon Bay for the Big Show.

It could be the Epic Kickoff to a Big Winter...Lord knows drought stricken California could use the water!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Grooming 101.6

Still Working With Gravity
Yesterday's lesson on Gravity and Berm Control didn't have anything to say about controlling Berms when the snow starts getting seriously deep. What happens when the snow is soft, dry, and deeper than the Snowcat's tracks?

Berms happen, that's what! When there's more snow than Tillers can chew, Modern Grooming Equipment can't do the job in a single pass. Today's Grooming Machines do much better than their fore-bearers, but even the most skilled groomer in the latest machine can't break the laws of physics. Mother nature bats last, and sometimes she goes on a hitting streak that would make Joltin' Joe DiMaggio envious.

When the snow gets to the topside of the machine's tracks, there's no alternative to Double Passing, to get the desired surface. Production goes out the window, Back up Plans take effect and the hunkering down begins. Old Hands know that there's a long hard slog ahead, and take steps to endure.

There's much satisfaction to be extracted from Big Storm Periods, provided you mete out your energy over the duration of the storm. It's not just up on the Mountain where deep snow means harder work...and more of it! Getting back and forth to work gets more difficult, vehicles need shoveled off, digging out and de-icing. All these extra chores eat the minutes until they become hours, and everything becomes slower as the snow deepens.

Coping Skills
Enduring the increased workload means adjusting your output of energy, and eliminating wasteful action in favor of tried and true methods to soldier through.

Step One: Stop hurrying! There's an old saying about the "hurrier I go, the behinder I get" or some such, just set a steady, sustainable pace, and grind it out.

I've learned to manage my excitement over my years on the Mountain, because hard won experience has taught me that more than likely, I'll be in my cat come 2PM, rather than hitting the sack back at the DaveCave. So, you keep a lid on your emotions, try and help everyone you work with to cope nicely so they too can stay in the game over the long haul.

Yes, the best laid plans of mice and men...when the snow gets deep, why do so many otherwise sane, intelligent people start to lose IQ Points by the bushel? Unfortunately, in all my years up in the High Sierra, I've never been able to put my finger on this weird behavior quirk.

You learn to tune out the frenzy, but stay vigilant, because you don't want to let anyone around you get stupid enough to hurt themselves or others. It's always during these extended siege periods that, people find ways to injure themselves or others. The Fire Departments and all our Emergency Responders already have their hands full, so we don't want to get on their waiting list! Sadly, if a wide-eyed Flatlander is going to tangle with a Road Grader on the Highway, or a Snowblower in a driveway, it'll be during a busy Storm Siege.

Mountain Sanctuary
Step Two: When you get away from the Base Areas and the IQ Altered, there is peace up on the Hill. Double Passing takes more than twice as long as grooming less snow in a single pass, but it is no less satisfying...especially if you've just escaped the circus below! Again, you tune up your Balancing Act.

When it's this deep, there are a couple of ways to proceed, depending on weather you're working solo, or working in a Pack. When I'm working by myself, I'll make as big a first pass as I dare, and groom my trail as wide as time allows, then go back to the beginning, and re-groom the whole shebang. A little "set-up time" helps things turn out better when you go back an "chase" those big berms.

If I'm leading a pack, we'll make fat passes going downhill, and gently chase the berms on our way back uphill. If the trail doesn't set up enough to do that, I move the pack to the next trail for it's first passes, and then return to chase the berms on the first trail...repeat as necessary, your acreage may vary...

When the guests hit the slopes, my crew leave the mountain to them. Most of the crew calls it a day, the Old Hands take a break, regroup and refuel, and head out for more Storm Fighting.

We stay off the Mountain during the day, but there are tons of places around the mountain where Groomers can help lighten the load of the snow that's piling ever deeper. Lots of plowing and pushing eat up the hours...this is where a good stereo and mp3 players come in handy. These gadgets help the time pass while keeping boredom at bay. Before you know it, it's afternoon and the body starts making it's needs known. Bedtime beckons, and you can veto the drive to rest for a few days, but as with all things worth doing, eventually you must succumb to nature and call it a shift.

The sleep you get after this kind of shift is deep, but the alarm clock goes off as soon as your head hits the pillow. Time to get up and do it all over again. We do this for days on end when the storm door is wide open…believe me, all the Old Hands live for this stuff!

Hard Work…Good Times.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Grooming 101.5

Making Heroes
OK, just how do heroes get it done? Is it just the Hero Snow that makes even dilettantes look good? If only it was so easy!

No, heroes must earn their status on the mountain. Anyone who can walk a straight line can learn to make a nice pass in a modern groomer, but a Groomer must have skills beyond walking and chewing gum at the same time! Multi-tasking was the "Word of the Year", what? More than a Decade ago? At least...

Like anything worth doing, Grooming a Ski Hill is a balancing act. Good operators learn which Rules can be bent, and when. They also know which Rules must be obeyed Always.

There's two sets of Groomer's Rules. On set for grooming uphill, and the other set for making corduroy going downslope. Gravity is a big player on Ski Hills. Skiing and Snowboarding aren't known as Gravity Sports for nothing!

Gravity supplies the horsepower that Sliders enjoy on any Ski Hill. Groomers, equipped with plenty of horsepower, use Gravity to help make the most Corduroy, with the least muss and fuss.

The most desirable Skiruns are paved with perfect corduroy from wall to wall, without any pesky berms to degrade the dance-floor-flat surface.

What are berms? Berms are spills, plain and simple. Snow spilled out of the reach of the Tiller's combs. The combs make the corduroy from the fresh packed and tilled snow. It's really easy to make berms, even with a "State of the Art" modern Groomer...go a little too fast downhill in soft snow, and lots of fresh-tilled snow will fall from the Tiller's Box, and spill beyond the reach of the combs.

The deeper the freshly fallen snow, the more likely it is berms will form. Here's the balancing act in all it's little glory. Going uphill, the tiller's box catches almost everything in it's way. Tilling it and feeding it under the weighted combs, leaving the dance floor corduroy. Crafty operators make the absolutely widest pass possible going uphill, without spilling a berm. At the top of the run, the operators adjust everything from the width of their new downhill pass, the depth of cut of the tiller, their speed over the snow, to the amount of Up-Pressure on their Tiller, and even adjust the speed of the tiller's Cutter Bar. All in order to keep from spilling any berm. To attain maximum productivity, every parameter of the cat's implements, need adjustment every pass, every time.

So, when the snow is soft or deep, the size of the pass depends on careful monitoring of, and reacting to ever changing conditions. The steeper the trail, the more gravity works against the Groomer, and the smaller each downhill pass becomes. Conversely, steepness helps widen the uphill pass...up to a point.

Blade basics
What about that big blade on the front of the cat? It's part of the Groomer's Toolbox, and in soft or deep conditions the blade helps the operator get another 10-20% out of each pass! Swinging the blade so the snow will flow across the face of the blade, away from the finished pass, and skimming just the right amount of snow off the pass he's working, allows the groomer to increase his speed, while controlling any potential berm production.

On hard packed nights, the blade is always in the snow, scraping the top few inches of the flatter surfaces, and keeping a "roll" of snow in the blade which supplies plenty of fresh, soft material for the tiller to chew and lay out for maximum corduroy production. Here again, the skilled operator takes all he can get from the snowpack, balancing depth of the blade's cut with the fullness of the pile rolling in (but not spilling from) his blade...all while keeping an eagle eye on his mirrors to monitor the spill from the tiller. Tailoring his speed to balance production vs quality is part of the game always, too.

On paper, it seems like a very busy, scattered endeavor, but in practice it can become a dance almost. When you're hittin' it right, it becomes a swirling ballet of sense and reaction, parry and thrust, risk and reward. It's pretty hard to keep the grin off your face when it's going like that. The acres and hours fly by, and barring breakdowns, extra runs can be groomed...above and beyond the Work Orders.

What about using that blade to mow down moguls, or to repair Race Ruts, you ask?

That’s a whole different ball game, and it deserves it’s own section. When the snow gets deeper, and skiers carve it into bumps, then I’ll do a seminar on Bump Cutting. There’s still lots to learn about soft, deep fresh snow! Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Grooming 101.4

Where Have All the Heroes Gone?
Alas, Hero Snow isn't around every night...What goes wrong when all the Heroes turn into Zeros?

The list of things that can turn an otherwise good productive night into Groomer's Hell is long and infamous. Simple or stupid, events sometimes best even the most experienced, working from the best List, in the best equipment, with the best of intentions, and the best record of rolling with the punches. Shit Happens...

It always seems to happen when it's pounding snow...don't ask me why. I starts innocently enough...say one guy oversleeps, or another gets his truck stuck on his way to work. The wind is howling, and the snow is piling up into big drifts...visibility is "less than ideal"...un-noticed, the disintegration has already begun. Welcome to my Snow Day Hell...

The Shift Foreman makes the call...fall back and regroup. Reprioritize, shift gears, try Plan B...

The Back-Up Plan shreds the Work Orders. New goals, though scaled back in acreage, take on new, and deadly important weight. Remember what we sell: A safe ride up a safe, groomed mountain. Heavy winds and high rates of snowfall are Mother Nature's recipe for Avalanches.

The Back-Up Plan grooms all the Peaks, the easiest way down from each lift, all ramps and maze areas, and all the "flats" around the Lodges and the Base Area where pedestrians will be walking to work, the Lodges, and all the shops. Roads to the tops of all six peaks need to be snowmobile friendly at 6AM, and roads to weather stations, snow study plots, and explosives magazines need to be maintained for use by the Opening Crews. The Back-Up Plan avoids all potential Avalanche Hazard Zones.

On good "Bad Days", going to the Back-Up Plan usually rights the ship, and the best is made from the burgeoning mess. Expectations are lowered to RealWorld levels, and the Shift Foreman and his Crew turn back into Rock Stars...on top of their game. Prepared, and battle hardened, they've made a Silk Purse from the Sow's Ear yet again. These nights feel good, relief feels good, dodging a bullet and getting away with it feels great. We don't get to feel these feeling every time things take a turn for the worse. Sometimes, Shit Keeps Happening...

Sometimes, right after calling the Back-Up Plan, the Foreman is starting to feel smug when the 2-Way crackles with Bad News..."Hey Boss? I just lost all drive" Uh-oh...there goes an hour of working time for Two machines.

On nights when it's really pounding, the Graveyard Mechanic usually has his hand full before any Grooming Machine shis attention. On Storm Nights, the Grooming Cats work their the same time, the Snow removal Crew is working their fleet to the Red Line also.

On these nights, the Mechanic already has his hands full keeping the Snow Removal Equipment online...Groomers gotta wait their turn. When things are going according to plan, there's a back-up grooming machine parked down at the Shop, ready to rumble. Another crewman fetches the operator from the stricken machine, and ferries him back to the shop so the back-up groomer can be pressed into service. Most times an hour of both operators' night are consumed by this snowcat shuffle.

Provided that this drama is played out at least an hour before dawn, a total save is still possible...but it just isn't often as not, another snowcat will join the injured reserve list. All it takes is the addition of a random broken winch cable or burst hydraulic hose to seal the Doom.

What's the one Single Point Failure most likely to down a Modern Grooming Machine? Windshield Wiper Failure! You can't groom if you can't see...but you can persevere. A confident operator can run with "under-performing" wipers with impunity...until the sun rises. Once there's light in the sky, wipers are a must. In the dark, operators are "Masters of their Domain" to borrow the concept from the Seinfeld Show. In the dark, groomers have total control of the lighting of their workplace...often running without forward lights makes for better's counter-intuitive, but it works, and it's a core lesson in the Grooming 101 Syllabus. Once the sun rises, all bets are off, and groomers rejoin the mere mortals eyesight-wise.

With the huge front windshields of today's Groomers, wiper failure is far too common. Massive heated windshields, coupled with heated wiper blades almost three feet long, conspire to overheat wiper motors or tweak linkages all too often. This failure can be absorbed for most of the shift, but the Piper must be paid at Dawn...right when the cost of losing a machine is the highest. When the snow is flying, and the sun is rising, even with clean windows, it's near impossible to resolve the difference between snow and sky...throw in a little wind, and it's Helen Keller City.

When these nights end (always badly) there no whoopin' or hollerin' back at the pump...just moanin' and groanin''s not a pretty sight, and it feels just plain lousy. These are the nights that try men's luck, no glory, no gold stars.

Nothing is worse than when a Hero takes a Fall...wounded is the worst way to end a shift.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Grooming 101.3

Friday Night Follies
As I write tonight, Chain Controls are up on Interstate 80. Here's the kicker from CalTrans' Road Info Page:

The storm somehow missed the Donner Summit/Tahoe Westshore Area almost entirely! Sugar Bowl's LiveCam shows some flurry action, but the CalTrans webcam at the Truck Inspection Station show heavier snowfall. Northstar is getting snow. Boreal's webcam hasn't updated since Thanksgiving Afternoon...

SisterSweetly called from Humboldt County reporting clearing skies, and really cold temps. The Reno AFD said the cold would set in for several days once the front passed. Perhaps High Sierra Snowmaking Crews will bank some Overtime this week. Mother Nature seems unwilling to contribute any precipitation for the next week, so 'Pray for Cold"

Back To Work
Now we can get to the business of grooming the Mountain. Today's modern, powerful Groomers are capable of high degrees of production, even when the new fallen snow is deep. There's no substitute for Horsepower goes the old saying.

My BR350 is so named because it's powered by a 350HP Caterpillar Electronic Diesel. This engine is powerful, has plenty of torque, and runs almost without odor. It's an amazing machine.

After a thorough checkout and walkaround, the cat's all warmed up, and the fuel's topped up, it's time to go grooming. Enter the Work Orders.

The best way to improve productivity in a Groomer, is to follow a good plan. The Work Orders are that plan. Long years of development went into creation of tonight's Work Orders. They are simple, really...Start at the beginning, and go down the "List" The trails are groomed in a sequence that minimizes extra passes, avoids grooming passes that have already been groomed tonight, and organized in such a way as to require the least amount of backing up, and fixing Turn Ruts.

Groomers only make Corduroy when they are moving forward, and grooming over fresh Corduroy doesn't make any New Corduroy. Following the List minimizes waste, and maximizes production.

Following the List, leads the Grooming Crews from one end of the Mountain to the other. Factored into the List are travel times from each of the Mountain's Six Peaks to the Vehicle Shop, where the Diesel Fuel Pumps refuel the fleet. At top speed, going in to refuel can be a 45 minute round trip. The List ensures these trips are never made. As the List is completed from top to bottom, each trail checked off the list brings the fleet closer to the Shop. Unless unforseen drama interrupts the smooth execution of the list, the Swing Shift should finish their work load and be at the Shop, refueling just in time for the Shift Change.

All the Secondary Trails, ramps, Maze Areas, and Special Projects are done on Swing Shift. Once the Graveyard Crew is in their cats, they head out and complete the List. Usually, there's several Secondaries still to do, before the Homeruns are groomed. The Homeruns are where all the Secondary Trails end on their way back to the bottom of each Chairlift. Turning Ruts, made by snowcats grooming up and down the Secondary trails are filled and tilled when the Homeruns get Groomed. No extra moves required.

Swing Shift grooms a little less than half of each night's acreage. Because the Swing Shift does so many detailed tasks, and the Ramp Cat travels from one end to the other of the Mountain to prepare each ramp, they "set the table" for the Graveyard Crew. With all the pesky details and special projects complete, the Graveyard Guys just make Corduroy...full speed ahead. On good nights, this is non-stop fun (and non-stop production) We call this "Hero Snow" anyone who can drive in a clean line makes tons of beautiful Corduroy.

Graveyard follows the List too, and it leads them to the bottom of the Mountain in time to make any last minute "touch-ups" around the Lifts and Lodges before our Guests begin to stream onto the Mountain.

The list also moves us closer and closer to the Vehicle Shop, until the whole crew in on the last Peak of the night, where we race the clock for the last precious acres of production before we sneak off the mountain just as the crowds begin to load the Last Peak Chairlift.

It's a beautiful thing when the whole crew is firing on all cylinders, the Hero Snow cooperates, and the day dawns sunny and blue! I never get tired of it all when we have nights like this. Every operator gets out of his cat back at the shop with a big ol' Grin on their face, and there's plenty of whoopin' and hollerin' about how great life is...It just doesn't get any better than that!