The Cats Come Out at Night

By Yeti Feb 17, 2017
Mountain magic happens after the sun goes down. The snowcats are hard at work to make sure your morning's groomed first run is perfect.
The Cats Come Out at Night

Untouched powder snow is the stuff dreams are made of for many skiers and riders. But being the first to lay down a deep arc on a buttery-smooth groomed slope is just as satisfying for others.

And while Utah is renowned near and far for its consistent, foot-plus dumps, thanks to the hundreds of nocturnal hours logged by snowcat operators across the state every night, the mountain resorts here have also established a stellar rep for producing some of the most velvety, carvable groomed snow you’ll find just about anywhere.

We teamed up with local photographer Will Saunders who spent an entire night in the dark with both the Park City Mountain and Snowbasin cat drivers. These photos give us a much greater appreciation and respect for that morning corduroy we all love to ski.

Swampy, on the left in the blue jacket, is a local grooming legend at Snowbasin. He grew up chasing trout, kayaking white water and skiing. Now he has found a passion for grooming. Swampy and his team work anywhere from 5-6 nights a week on the swing shift that runs from 4:00 p.m.–11:00 p.m.

The grave shift starts around 11:00 p.m. where the guys meet at a warehouse up on the mountain. These guys pound a bunch of coffee, have a team meeting and then start up the cats. Location: Park City Mountain

Massive yellow extension cords run from a red pipe to the cats where the batteries charge and stay warm in between shifts. The guys on the grave shift work no matter the conditions, blizzard or blue bird. After a sleepless night, most of them will ski the next day, hit the sack around 3:00 p.m. and sleep till 10:00 p.m. to start the shift again. Location: Park City Mountain


There are dozens of techniques used in slope grooming, says John Neuhauser, Park City Mountain’s trail/slope grooming manager, which vary based on snow conditions and the terrain being worked. But in a nutshell, it all comes down to the snowcat operator, who constantly manipulates the blade (the plow on the front of the snowcat) and the tiller (the rear finishing implement) while grooming a slope to precisely shave the snow along the naturally undulating terrain and achieve the ideal corduroy surface. You know, kind of like your favorite corduroy pants from the ‘70s.

Snowbasin carries with it, a Winter Olympic legacy, and has carried the highest standard in grooming since hosting the world in 2002. 50 runs on average are groomed per night, or 500 acres, smoothed over by a team of 13. Snowbasin boasts the men's Olympic Downhill (Grizzly Downhill course) which requires a winch cat at a 74 percent slope. That's steep. This is 2,941 vertical feet of grooming from the top to the base. 

Swampy does a quick but thorough check of his cat before starting his shift. The interior of the cat is very similar to a car in the sense that the cab has control over temperature and the sound system can play music of choice. Swampy was jamming an eclectic playlist off of his iPod that filled the night with background music. Location: Snowbasin.

Every night at Deer Valley Resort, 10-13 members of the resort’s 33-strong grooming staff buff out at least 60 of the resort’s 101 runs. This commitment to perfection has earned Deer Valley no. 1-in-North America accolades for grooming from the readers of SKI magazine every year for the past decade. The longest run is 2.8 miles, top of Northside Express to bottom of Sultan Express (Ontario, Homeward Bound, McHenry’s, Sultan Connection) and is regularly groomed. On any given night 10-12 cats are used to groom 50-60 percent of all terrain on any given night.

Deer Valley is hardly alone in its dedication to slope maintenance. Solitude Mountain Resort grooms 49 (625 acres) of its 77 runs on a nightly basis. At Sundance Mountain Resort, 23 of 45 runs are manicured every night. And even at Alta, where skiers from around the world converge for the steep and deep, 40 of 116 runs are groomed regularly between a team of 10-12 people and cats. Alta winch grooms 6-8 runs each night in the steepest terrain.

But it’s the United State’s largest mountain resort, Park City, that takes the quantitative cake for nightly slope prep. There, 120 of the 7,300-acre resort’s 300-plus runs are groomed most nights of the winter season; the most overnight grooming completed at any single resort in the Western Hemisphere. A Herculean task executed with a keen eye for detail as well. “Where some resorts just do one groomed track down the center of a run,” Neuhauser says, “we take pride in grooming wall-to-wall, laying fresh corduroy across the entire trail.” 

So, this winter, on those days between storms, perhaps rather than hitting the snooze button you’ll be the first in the lift line. And the first to glide down those long, perfectly silky, groomed rows of The Greatest Snow on Earth.

All the cat drivers say that one of the biggest perks of the job is seeing the sunset on the swing shift or watch the sun rise on the grave shift. All from the top of the mountain where you can see for miles on a clear day. Location: Snowbasin

Up on the mountain sits a gas station built for a Wes Anderson film, hidden just enough away from the resorts runs. The cats fill up after a night on the mountain grooming and take diesel fuel. Location: Park City Mountain