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.
I hitched a ride with operator Adam Morrisett 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.
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.
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
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.
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