A Night in the Life of a Snowcat Driver: How Ski Slopes are Groomed

By Local Lexi Apr 26, 2021
How are ski runs groomed? Under the cover of darkness snowcat drivers work tirelessly to sculpt and shape the mountain. Learn what a typical shift for a snowcat driver looks like.
A Night in the Life of a Snowcat Driver: How Ski Slopes are Groomed

Should you be lucky enough to find yourself near a ski area in the quiet hours, you’ll witness the beguiling scene of bright lights beaming up and down the mountain.

An underappreciated facet of ski resort management lies in the capable hands, blades and tillers of snowcat drivers. As they plumb the dark flanks of mountains all across the land, they lay down perfect corduroy for skiers and shredders in their wake but are responsible for far more than most resort guests realize. Operating massive machines that slowly trace the mountain’s contours, the work of snowcat operators is a critical ingredient for successfully operating a ski resort.

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I hitched a ride with operator Adam M
orrisett of Brighton Resort to learn the art of his chosen trade. Having groomed the slopes of Brighton for 10 years and currently serving as Brighton’s Supervisor of Snowcat Operations, Adam knows a thing or two about herding cats.

First, there are a few snowcat components that help operators achieve their objectives. 

  • The blade is the taco-shaped tool up front. This is used for chopping, filling, and rolling snow. 

  • The tracks underneath the cabin can move independently of each other, and they assist in breaking up and consolidating freshly fallen snow. They are typically constructed of rubber, aluminum or steel and fit over rubber wheels to efficiently navigate soft and squishy surfaces (i.e snow). Thanks to their relatively low ground pressure, the tracks keep the cat afloat despite its immense weight. Early in the season, when there isn't enough snow to be tilled, the tracks play an important role in packing and consolidating the snow to establish a firm base.

  • The tiller is located at the rear of the cat. There is a spinning pipe with barbs called a cutter bar that chews up the snow. Once the snow is cut flat and the ruts and holes have been filled or repaired with the blade, the cutter bar spins to churn up the snow. The comb is the flap dragging along the snow surface that deposits those perfect rows of sculpted corduroy behind the cat.

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  • Some snowcats are equipped with a winch, which is used to secure the machine and allow it to safely climb steep slopes. It looks much like a meaty scorpion, and the tool secures the cat to a sturdy anchor with a thick steel cable. At Brighton, which doesn't have a winch cat, the crew grooms steeper slopes from the top down. In keeping with tradition at Brighton, "powder is for the people", so the steeper slopes covered in a thick blanket of fresh snow are left ungroomed until shredders and skiers have plundered the goods. The cats will come in a day or two later to clean up and repair the run after a storm. 

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Sundance's winch cat heads out on a swing shift

At Brighton, Adam’s typical evening begins at 11:50 PM when he clocks in for a graveyard shift. He manages a group of 14-15 cat operators at Brighton where a total of eight snowcats keep the slopes in top shape. You’ll find six cats working the graveyard shift (12:00 AM to 8:00 AM) and three cats toiling away during the swing shift (4:00 PM to 12:00 AM).

Each night is a little bit different,” Adam confesses. “We groom the same stuff, but there are always different things that need our attention. Snow conditions dictate where each operator will be assigned for their shift.

Adam and his crew talk over logistics for the evening, determine what needs to be rebuilt or where snow will be distributed and decide which areas of the resort require attention. They formulate a plan of attack, who will groom which segment of the mountain and who will drive each cat. The most experienced operators handle the newest and most expensive cats, and the newer drivers are assigned to less difficult tasks. Adam manages folks who have 25+ years of experience, as well as two drivers who just got their start this season. Once the details are ironed out, the crew fans out across the mountain to tackle their challenges.

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Each day, as guests enjoy the slopes at Brighton, their schussing and shredding action pushes snow to the sides of runs and down the mountain. The snowcat drivers must maneuver around the mountain, pushing snow back to the center of the runs, as well as from the base of slopes back to the top. They’ll also keep an eye on thin spots and deposit extra snow in places where more coverage is needed.

Because the bulk of their work occurs during the darkest hours, many snow enthusiasts may not realize the extent of a snowcat driver's work responsibilities. It’s not just laying down furrows of perfect corduroy...

Snowcat Operator Duties

  • As mentioned above, maintaining ski runs, pushing snow back uphill and redepositing snow to create even and smooth trails is a top priority for the operations crew. Temperature and weather hugely affect this task. When the snow is hard or saturated it can take multiple passes to restore a run. When the snow is fresh or soft, it takes fewer passes and leaves an immaculate product for guests to enjoy. Adam and his team will look at the terrain and puzzle out where snow needs to be moved in order to make the runs as flat as possible in an efficient manner. Some nights they work from top to bottom and left to right, others require the opposite approach.

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  • During storm cycles, the cat crew assists ski patrol in their avalanche mitigation work. They may transport teams of patrollers up to the mountaintops in the wee hours around 5:00 AM. On occasion, they’ll also help members of the mountain operations crew release or unstick wayward snowmobiles. All that horsepower sure comes in handy when smaller machines require assistance. 

  • In the weeks leading up to opening day, the cat crew is pushing a lot of snow around the mountain to ensure even snow distribution, and they patch up any thin spots. A ton of work and time are invested into adjusting and building ski runs before the bulk of winter’s bounty coats the slopes with a sufficient base. The tracks of each snowcat help the crew to consolidate early season snow into a thick, protective base layer. The same duties apply when late spring arrives. The operators try their hardest to preserve snow, keep terrain open and patch over or repair areas with thin coverage. 

  • On the other hand, the cat operators provide invaluable compaction during large storm cycles when the snow is piling up at prodigious rates. It’s not unusual for the Cottonwood Canyons to pick up 40-50” in a week during major storm cycles. It’s game on during this scenario, and the machines work continually to dig out the lift terminals at the base and peaks. The operators will have to manage and deposit huge loads of snow to keep the base area functional and accessible.

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  • Not only does powder coat the hallowed slopes of Brighton, it covers the parking lot too! The team assists the Parking Crew by helping with snow removal. Snowcats will push mountains of snow out of the way and help to keep the parking lot surface even before the plows or loaders can do their work. It’s a huge team effort keeping ski resort parking lot areas clear when you get as much snow as resorts in Utah do! Many times the plows and loaders will push the snow around as best they can, but the added horsepower of a snowcat is required to move or manage the resulting piles.

  • When it’s windy, the cat crew will have to ensure that the lifts are clear and that the top terminals remain accessible. This may require breaking up and moving drifts to keep the area clear for unloading. It may surprise you to learn that the snow depth at the top lift terminals is typically only a couple feet deep.

  • Cat roads are how the snowcats access the mountain and groom runs. They also provide critical access for members of the Mountain Operations Team or Ski Patrol to navigate around the resort on snowmobiles or transport things around the mountain. These roads require maintenance and repair throughout the season, just like the ski runs. 

  • More experienced and specialized operators often assist members of the Park Crew. They are responsible for shaping and building all the different jumps and terrain features. After a big storm, there’s lots of cleaning up to do in order to ensure the features are still accessible. Within the past seven to eight years there have been huge advancements in the capability and technology of machines for terrain park management. You’ll find cats with specialized tillers, ergonomics and geometry that assist operators in building features, pipes, and ramps. 

How to Become a Snowcat Operator

Adam has been shaping the slopes at Brighton for 10 years now. Prior to that he spent a couple of seasons at the Canyons (now Park City Mountain) and served on the snowmaking crew at Snowbird 12-13 years ago. Adam has always been involved in the resort industry, having worked at Crystal Mountain and Mt. Holiday in Michigan while growing up. He earned a degree in Ski Area Management from Gogebic Community College in Ironwood, MI before heading west for an internship in snowmaking and grooming with Heavenly Mountain Resort in California.

But you don’t need a background in the industry to land a job as a snowcat operator. Adam actually hired two “never-evers” just this season. At Brighton, the newbies will start out observing a seasoned operator for a few shifts and then complete a number of shifts under supervision. New operators will often work on the lower mountain tackling simpler assignments until they gain experience and confidence. Previous operating experience isn’t required, though it does help! Adam estimates that it takes about a season’s worth of work to hone proficiency in becoming a great cat operator. 


Random Cat Facts
  • It is far more difficult to groom snow in spring with the melt and freeze cycles prevalent in mountain environments. Once the snow sets up at night it becomes quite firm and may require a number of passes to achieve the desired outcome. 

  • Much like boats, snowcats do not feature odometers. Their usage is measured in operator hours. Each cat is different from an operator perspective and newbies are generally placed on older cats while experienced operators are expected to helm the newer or more expensive cats.

  • The snowcat Adam uses has a blade that can move in 12 different directions to match the snow’s surface and manipulate piles of snow. 

  • A newer feature unique to PistenBully machines is the SNOWsat tool. This amazing feature allows operators to visualize the depth of the snow at the blade with an accuracy of +/- 1 inch in real-time. This functionality allows drivers to understand the distribution of snow along ski trails and improves efficiency. Three of Brighton’s snowcats feature SNOWsat technology, and Adam raves about its application and usefulness. 
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  • Snowcats aren’t just used for maintaining snow surfaces. They can be found on polar expeditions, in military fleets, logging in wet or marshy areas and leveling piles of sugar beets. Of course every skier or snowboarder also knows about cat skiing! 

  • Other names for a snowcat include snow groomer, piste machine, snow machine or trail groomer. It mainly depends on where you’re located! Snowcats weren’t actually named after snow leopards, rather it is a compound of the words snow and caterpillar. 

  • The top speed of a PistenBully 600 is around 14 MPH. These are the snowcats Brighton uses, in addition to a few PistenBully 400 Park Pros.



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