Saturday, December 25, 2010

Stuck In Time

Getting a snowcat stuck is such a rare occurrence that getting stuck this week turned on my Way Back Machine.

In three decades of grooming on My Mountain I've got stuck three times.

Technically the second time, in the late 90's I could have driven out (save for all the trees below me)...I had to get pulled back up on the cat road that I fell off of (or more precisely, the cat road that fell away under me)

The memorable stuck was during my rookie season. Back then the fleet was all Tucker SnoCats and one Thiokol 3700. The Tuckers didn't have a blade out front. Groomers towed various implements for different conditions...rollers, mogul cutters, powdermakers, even huge drag chains.

The morning in question, I was pulling a 30ft roller.

The trail I was grooming was a steep intermediate run that we usually got a little toboggan action from at the breakover a third of the way down.

Working left to right, I crept down towards the breakover...sure enough, once the Tucker's pontoons were past the breakover, she slid. I punched the throttle and away we went...this time was different than the times I done this trail before...this time the whole run crowned...wall to wall...a 3ft slab avalanche that roared down the 50 yards or so to the compression at the bottom of the steep.

My Tucker went into the compression like a lawn dart into soft turf, and the avalanche debris piled up around me. It was up to the top of the hood, and up to the windows in the doors...I couldn't even get out to shovel myself free. My only tool available was the Motorola 2-Way Radio.

I called the boss who was digging out the top of the mountain. He advised that I'd better start shoveling...I explained that I couldn't get out of my cab to shovel...he replied: "I've gotta see this!"

The boss in his 3700 roared up about 20 minutes later...clearly amused at my predicament. He made quick work of removing the snow around my cab and that 30ft roller. As he roared off to return to his digging he keyed the mic: "Now you can shovel your way out!"

Maybe twenty minutes with my shovel, and I was free.

That was the only time I slid a whole run at once. Back then I didn't know what I didn't know. I chalked up the thrill as just another bit of  Groomer Esprit de Corps. Today I'd be scared shitless if I crowned a whole run!

Thirty years ago we had lots of thrills on the hill, but today we could never leave the ski surface the way we did back then. For the most part, we've evolved the adrenaline out of the job. That trail is only groomed by winch cats today...I can count on one hand the number of times we've groomed that run with a free cat since the turn of the century.

Having been in the trade all the way through this evolutionary epoch, I've evolved to enjoy the cerebral thrills in lieu of the raw adrenaline rush. Do I miss it? is fun...but the satisfaction I feel knowing how perfectly we groom the slopes in the modern era is deeper than I'd ever imagined back in those "Wild West" days.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Whale Watching

Until this morning, I thought there was only one kind of whale found on ski hills.

In snowmaking-speak, a whale is the huge pile of man-made snow where the gun or fan is pointed when temps are favorable and the groomers are too busy to spread the man-made around before a long, huge pile the size of a whale piles up.

This morning I heard myself say over the 2-way radio that I'm working on "My White Whale"...d'oh!

First, a little'll remember that I've been trying to build bridges for better than a week now. Almost a week of rain filled the creeks and streams after all my bridges were in, reopening the watercourses, and turning my building material (fresh snow) from bridge building snow to dam building snow.

Let me be clear, the ski hill is in fine shape, all this hydrology trouble is on our cross country trails, a new wrinkle in my morning to-do list.

All the bridges were in place before snow levels rose to rainmaking levels, and I've been trying to rebridge every non-raining morning since...I found myself getting a little frustrated, as each time I built a new bridge, Mother Nature would open it up by morning again.

This week, I endured a one-day weekend and returned Monday to four new feet of dry snow that fell on my night off. Without any machine issues, my crew made short work of the Work Orders and we even threw in a couple of extras. I made exactly five passes of corduroy for the shift, spending my time digging out instead. Off the hill plenty early, I roared off to finish the final hold-out bridge project.

Here's where I got myself in trouble...As I was delegating our workload via my 2-way, I said in passing that "I wasn't gonna let that last bridge get the best of me"...I'm sure there's a parable that fits my crime, but I'm not conversant with all the parables and their names and numbers...

Back on the trail, I worked my way a kilometer at at time towards the last big crossing project...I smoothed out and widened the first two creek crossings, and dealt with a fallen treetop that blocked the trail. (Huge winds tore up the Sierra Crest Sunday night, Alpine Meadows recorded one gust at 155mph!)

As I approached my troubled bridge, I rolled up a huge bladefull of semi-heavy snow...there was no open water at the bridge site proper...I could see the creek downstream of my crossing...I plowed ahead...I sank a little as I expected (the bridge is at the bottom of a small compression in the trail) I feathered the snow out of my blade to fill the compression a little, just As I bogged down trying to climb out of the dip. Backing out of the sticks to give max torque to my tracks, I didn't make it across, I lifted the tiller and backed out of there quick! One track was on the snow, the other was in the mud...on the bottom of what was now a small shallow lake where the creek had overflowed it's banks.

Awful muddy water with weeds was pumping over the muddy track as I spun away from the tall bank. That bladefull of snow was now working against me...I wasn't totally high-centered, but enough to lighten the track that wasn't in the mud...the muddy track continued to pump mud, water and weeds over itself and a tree in my way necessitated a three point turn...which is where it all went for naught...I was my trusty old BR350...oh the humanity...

A fine kettle of fish...I keyed the mic and called my boss..."I'm stuck and could you fire up a winchcat, please? It'll be a straight pull, should be no problem"...I asked him to "bring two winch straps"...he asked: "should I bring my waders?"...I said: "it wouldn't hurt, but we can probably keep our feet dry"...

So the cat was out of the bag...TruckeeDave stuck...on the air for all that care...the rest of the saga would play out on the airwaves as well...for all to hear...sigh...

On the bright side, I needed my sunglasses for the first time in a week...small compensation for my embarrassment, though...

It took us an hour or so to extricate me...the boss widened the road down to the compression area where my cat was now a dam...the unseen lake had risen through the pristine snow at least five inches in 30 minutes...

We hooked up for the pull...the boss dialed his pressure up to 400Bar...I didn't even feel a tug...I was in deep...I keyed the mic: "Boss, I think we need to go blade to blade, you can push me back three feet or so, and backblade some of this snow from in front of my tracks, it'll give me some momentum coming out of my hole" Talk about good radio...

It worked! I popped out of the lake/hole like gangbusters! I left a trail 75 yards long of muddy, weedy adrenaline was still off the charts...I was under an eight of a tank of fuel...please God, I prayed...don't let me run out of fuel today! I made it back to the fuel dock and put in 55.42 Gals...whew that was a close one! No damage to either cat...bullets dodged!

OK, that brings me back to this morning...and my radio call about the White Whale...discretion being the better part of valor, I went the other way around...I stripped 200 yards of trail of enough snow to bridge the creek/lake/hole complex.

A little clean snow to cover Tuesday's muddy tracks, and one final lap around the whole trail and I called it in: Cross country trails OPEN!

Once again I needed the Ray-Bans...and I was out of there early!

Tonight, No Drama...I promise

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Catchin' My Breath

We're enjoying a little break in the Pineapple Express...good thing too. Nothing say Grinch like winter flooding. The classic La Niña split sent most of the moisture south of the Tahoe Sierra, to the Benefit of Mammoth Mountain. Sadly, lower elevation neighborhoods were inundated or caught mud slides.

On my mountain, we've opened most of our groomable trails...just a couple to go. Around Truckee, the Snow Removal crews are catching up. The big blower blew both sides of our street Tuesday, making a little more room for the influx of Holiday Visitors.

The Visitors are here in droves. Tuesday I orbited the Safeway parking lot for nearly ten minutes before giving up and doing my shopping at Save-Mart. I slipped into Safeway Wednesday morning, but the cupboard was bare (not a single bottle of Ginger Beer was left!) Save-Mart also featured the empty hole on the Ginger Beer shelf...

The Reno AFD says the next wave of winter will arrive the afternoon Christmas Day, so there will be a White Christmas.

In the meantime, mild temperatures should help thaw mountain peoples stuff long enough to brace for the next blast of Winter.

I for one am looking forward to another Bluebird Morning Thursday...Ray-Bans ready!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Diggin' It

It seemed like old times last night. I actually only made five pure corduroy shift...period.

I wasn't slacking, I was digging. All night I pushed and plowed, making room for ski tips at the bottom terminals, and making top ramps longer and steep enough to propel our guests away from the ramps to ease crowding.

The snowfall had eased enough for chain controls to end, and for resorts to catch up. We ran an extra shift and groomed a bunch in anticipation of decent weather and crowds. Mother Nature played nice and we enjoyed a Bluebird morning (though the overnight cloud cover made the Total Lunar Eclipse an inferred event, rather than a directly enjoyed celestial spectacle)

It's the little things really, that make my job so special. This morning it was putting on my Ray-Bans for the first time in what seems like weeks! The simple joy of needing sunglasses made missing the night's sky show the farthest thing from my heart.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


I relearned an old lesson this week...there's only so much a man can do...limiting factors like endurance, fortitude, and energy reserves are largely learned or earned skills, but one's gotta play the cards one's dealt.

The latest storm system to slam into the Tahoe Sierra has kicked ass and taken names...take my Friday night experiences for example...

I got all my sleep for the day...I headed out of the DaveCave a half an hour early. There would be some snow removal to be done before I could drive to work. I climbed the stairs to my driveway and was greeted by a four foot tall, five foot wide berm of half frozen, waterlogged snow and ice blocking the driveway...all 22ft of it...the berm was under the front end of my pickup, and the backside of the Landlord's wife's Subaru wagon.

Sans earplugs, I fired up the Snowblower and blew away the berm from the front of my truck and the back of the Subey. I fought my way to work up Interstate 80 and arrived a full 30 minutes late.

No biggy really...the whole swing shift crew was hanging graveyard crew was there...and the fleet was in tatters...which is to say in various degrees of disrepair. I felt l;ike I'd reported for duty in Hiroshima, Japan circa August 7th, 1945!

Welcome to Craterville 
Population: Two sad grooming crews.
My crew of four was asking who could go home...there weren't enough cats to go around...One Bison X lost a wheel (fortunately the wheel went astray right outside the vehicle shop) Another Bison was misfiring, and had an awful exhaust note...and was down on power. One Sherpa winch had a hydraulic leak on it's winch, and my tractor's windshield wipers had given up the ghost after four hours...not good...

The fleet could only field three tractors until the graveyard wrench came to work at 0300. We ran the leaky winch as a free cat, and one guy (my Hero) waited for the mechanic to arrive. I needed to have all hands on deck come morning.

I roared off to work by myself (you can run without front wipers, as long as you control the light)...Our Graveyard Mechanic pulled in a half an hour early, and set about fixing the funny sounding Bison. After 6+ hours, I brought my trusty old BR350 into the shop for the wiper problem.

Fried wiper motor gearbox...remove and replace...I was back on the hill before was still dumping...Big Time...

Those wiperless 6+ hours were feeling like 12+ hours now...the snow was pretty wet, making every move more creeks were raging torrents again, and my bridge To-Do List went on hold for another day. At least I had all hands on deck fore the final push to opening!

I wrapped my shift in Hell after 11:30...I limped home and collapsed into dreamland...just in time to wake up and do it all over again...that's another story that I'd rather not tell. I've got a whole one night off, and I'm going to savor it now!