Enjoy the ‘Roy: Credo of a Taos Ski Valley Snow Groomer
| By Snowsports Journalist Daniel Gibson |
“Enjoy the ‘roy” is the personal tagline on Tommy Murray’s text messages and Internet postings. It’s a fitting sentiment, as Murray is Taos Ski Valley’s snow surfaces manager, directing its superlative grooming crews that work all night, every night, to prepare the slopes for skiers, laying down some of the finest corduroy in the business. He also directs Taos’ snowmaking and terrain park operations, but we will leave those stories for another day.
Named for its similar look to the fabric, corduroy is the preferred texture of early morning ski slopes around the world, allowing for easy, consistent turns on what would otherwise often be sheets of ice.
Few skiers are aware of the effort that goes into the immaculate slopes they wake to every morning at ski areas worldwide. Murray and his crew of 32 to 34 people, which also includes those that make manmade snow early in the season, do know. They are out there in raging blizzards, in sub-zero temperatures in the pitch dark every night of the ski season. A few weeks ago I got to spend a portion of the night shift, which runs from 1 a.m. to 9 a.m., with Murray as he took his $460,000 Piston Bully Polar 600 snowcat groomer through its paces on the mountain.
Why It’s Done
Why employ a fleet of 17 incredibly expensive machines and a large crew to prepare all of Taos’ beginner run, intermediate slopes, its catwalks, and a handful of expert runs every night?
“The goal is to create a really good ski surface,” he explains inside the darkened cab of the cat, which resembles the cockpit of a plane, with hundreds of glowing switches, levers, buttons, and buttons on top of buttons on the main stick. “By that, I mean a surface that is not compacted, hard and dense. You want to take all the imperfections out of yesterday’s surface, so that when you’re skiing at a high rate of speed you don’t have a lot of chatter and inconsistencies.
“People don’t understand that these trails are not naturally flat by any means. There’s deep creek beds, rock bands, stumps. It takes a lot of snow and a lot of grooming to fill them in and level it,” Murray continued.
“Every day the skiers and snowboarders will take out the center of catwalks, and make them kind of U-shaped by pushing snow to the sides. So the first thing we do is to use the blade to bring the snow back to the center, and flatten it and shape it. Then the tiller behind us softens up this snow and lays out a nice corduroy pattern.”
They can also create other patterns, like a smooth brush pattern, but corduroy is the preferred texture. “When you cut across corduroy with skis, you take off the top layer and drive it into the valleys, creating this nice, soft, carvable surface,” Murray said. The pattern also provides a downhill, directional force. “When you’re the first person on corduroy, you can ski so fast and turn with so little effort; without it you’d be skiing on a rock-hard, icy surface. We move metric tons of snow every night. All day long skiers fight us — they bring snow downhill, and every night we push it back up.”
Preparing race courses is another animal, he explains, “very much so. Racers require a very hard surface, so we actually try and exert a lot of pressure to increase that melting and refreezing process. We’ll start this week’s before the event to set up a really durable surface. If it’s warm sometimes they’ll also scatter rock salt on the snow to increase the melting during the day, which will then freeze solid at night.”
In addition, he notes that sometimes the “set” of a mogul field will become skewed, and they will knock them all down with the cats to allow for a better pattern to develop. Split grooming is another wonderful development allowed by these amazing machines. This refers to grooming one side of a run, flattening its moguls, while leaving the other half bumped up. “I feel it’s a great way to learn how to ski moguls. If someone gets out of control or is struggling, they can ski out to the groomed and reset themselves, then try again.”
How It’s Done
Every night six cats head out of the barn to hunt down the errant moguls and ice, in shifts running from 5 p.m. to midnight and 1 – 8 a.m., racking up about 42 hours on the slopes. They’ll cover every inch of some 900 acres and travel some 150 miles altogether!
TSV rarely put cats out in daytime as they could create a safely issue. An exception is during heavy daylight snowstorms, when they will be run on major catwalks to keep them smooth, and on beginner slopes.
They focus on beginner and intermediate runs but also have a few cats, with heavy-duty winches mounted on a swivel boom, which can be positioned at either the front or the rear for grooming super steep runs. The winch cables are attached to fixed anchor points on these runs, or occasionally around stout trees, and the cats are pulled up and lowered down these slopes to get the job done. They are most often deployed on Thursday and Friday nights to prepare steep slopes for weekend crowds.
As for grooming ordinary runs and catwalks, the key is the combined use of the plow “blade” at the front of the cat and the tiller drug behind. The blade takes off a thin layer of hardened snow, and after the cat rumbles over it, the tiller picks this up, chops it up, fluffs it up in a rotating drum, and them deposits it behind the cat, using adjustable tail fins to create the sought-after corduroy pattern.
“The more pressure I put on the tiller, the more friction it creates on the snow surface, thus more melting, followed by it setting up in the night’s cold,” Murray explained. So, he uses as light a touch as possible on the tiller to avoid excessive heat. Did I mention that experience counts in this field? A lot. Murray can sense the slightest variation in snow quality, slope pitch, and dozens of other factors to help him optimize the ‘roy.
The grooming crew works closely with ski patrol, especially in clearing avalanche debris in Kachina Basin following control work that can send massive volumes of snow onto runs below, as occurred in mid-February when the K Chutes ran almost to the ground. They have nicknames for every nook and cranny on the mountain, which come in handy when needing to direct crews to specific locations.
Every night they go out with a written plan that is fed into an online, onboard display that Murray creates specific to each crew member and cat. They also carry detailed mental maps of how to approach each run. Murray has mapped out the entire mountain in 18-foot-wide swaths — the width of the tiller — to lay out the most efficient paths possible for his crews, routes that won’t find any cat covering the same ground twice. The first year using the system they saved substantially in fuel, plus countless man-hours. He attributes this innovation to the huge lawns he had to cut at home as a kid, a lesson he applied on a landscape scale at TSV!
The machines are quite broad and heavy, and so they are inherently stable. He has never rolled one over, but he has been in a few scary situations where the cat began to slide. “It’s happened a few times, usually in really deep snow on a steep slope. There’s no brakes in a snowcat, so you actually have to step on the gas and go faster to outrun the slide and get your tracks to bite.” Not getting easily rattled seems to be another attribute of a successful catter.
Murray also emphasizes an aesthetic aspect of grooming. “I also want to make it pleasing to the eye, especially where two trails diverge or converge,” he says. “Do not crisscross, stay in your lane,” he admonishes his crews. “We get upset when a snowmobile crosses over our freshly laid corduroy, and really, we view it as an art form as much as a practical endeavor.”
Who Does It?
There are no women on his crews currently, but he says there have been in the past. It’s not a job for just anyone, and good help is hard to find. “It’s a challenge. The last few years I’ve been pulling guys out of the snowmaking crews. I watch and see which ones are really mechanically inclined and motivated, and ask them if they’d like to become groomers. If they do, I teach them how to operate the cat and the finer points of grooming.” He found that more experienced groomers showing up to work often had “bad habits” regarding their grooming process and style that were hard to break. “Every ski area has its own way of doing things.”
It also takes a certain type of person, one that doesn’t mind working alone, for one, but he notes, “Those that stick around, it almost seems like a form of addiction. They love being in these machines and what they do. They love shaping the mountain. There’s a real sense of accomplishment and pride in what they do. You see this process especially in the early weeks of snowmaking when all we have are these twenty-foot-high piles of manmade snow (called “whales” due to their common shape) separated by bare ground. We come in, break them apart, smear them out, and the runs begin to take form.”
He grooms two days a week himself, and otherwise tackles administrative work on a “normal” schedule, so this life requires constant adjustment of sleeping patterns.
His Tracks to Catting
The 53-year-old Murray’s path to handling a cat, as well as directing Taos’ snowmaking and terrain parks, began decades ago. He was a fishing guide for 22 years in Alaska, running his own business, where he met his wife, the dynamic Angelisa Murray, owner and director of Heritage Inspiration Tours based in New Mexico.
One winter in Alaska he found work as a cat driver for a small ski guiding operation, then the next winter was employed at Aleyska Resort outside of Anchorage in their grooming department, where he really honed his grooming skills. He recalls, “I was in a Bombardier cat — loud and stinky, though at the time it was top of the line. I spent forty or fifty hours riding shotgun with another driver in the jump seat before I got behind the wheel.”
Moving to Park City, Utah, for almost a decade he spent summers guiding fishermen in Alaska, and working winters in the grooming department for Park City Resort. A few winters were also spent with the Utah highway department grooming high alpine roads for backcountry skier and snowmobiler access — a program the state of New Mexico should consider to help this segment of the ski industry grow here.
His roles at TSV began in 2013. “We came to visit Taos and by the end of the trip I really loved it, and so did Angelisa,” Murray recalled. “I asked if she’d like to move here and she immediately said ‘yes!’ When we arrived in late September neither of us had jobs. I came up here and asked if there were any cat driving positions, and the director at the time said, ‘No. All my guys have been here for twenty years. So I asked if there was anything else and he said, ‘I have an opening in snowmaking. It pays nine bucks an hour and you can die. Still interested?’ I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ I’d never done it but I’d been around it, and I just jumped in. I loved it, and a few years in I was the crew supervisor, then head of grooming. It’s been a slow but steady progression. I love my crew, the guys I’ve worked with, and the company as a whole. They really take care of us, and the larger community.”
He has seen a big difference between the prior owners and the current team. When he arrived every decision was weighed against tight budget restraints. “It was tough. Funds were really tight. We even had to re-use bailing wire! Under the new owners we saw a big budget increase and were able to buy new tools. It was a game changer, and brought the crews to life.”
The initial year supervising snowmaking he had to hire some 15 people, now he has a better than 90 percent return rate of crew. “I try to empower guys, to give them lots of responsibility and they love it. Most guys don’t want to be told exactly what to do; they want to take initiative, and I allow them to.”
So, next time you hit the slopes early in the morning and find some freshly groomed run, you might want to give thanks for the guys who were out there in the night setting it up for you. Enjoy the ‘roy!
Ski CONDITIONS (As of February 24)
Ski Santa Fe reports a 56-inch base, but its online conditions report was dated Feb. 18 on Feb. 24, so quien sabe? It also says all runs are open except Marmot, Sunset Bowl and Easter Bowl, but its trail report does not include Big Rock Chutes and I’m guessing they are still closed too. (Learn about free Blue Bus transportation to Ski Santa Fe here.)
Taos Ski Valley began spinning its Kachina Peak Chair on Feb. 22, and the snow up high on Monday was nice and soft, with piles of uncut snow here and there. But it is not operating again as this is written, so its future status is unclear. Taos has a 54-inch base (at mid-Shalako), with almost every run open. Sir Arnold Lunn, Walkyries Chute and Twin Trees are closed.
Wolf Creek has a phat 96-inch base, and has received 285 inches of snow so far this season. For spring break, March 6 – 9 and March 14 – 17, tickets can only be bought online (by 8 p.m. the night prior to skiing); otherwise, they are available for in-person purchase.
Red River picked up lots of snow last week and reports a 50-inch base, with all but one run open.
Angel Fire Resort has a 39-inch base and all runs but one open.
Pajarito reports a 22-inch base, with most runs skiable, except the Townsight sector. It is open Wednesdays – Sundays.
Sandia Peak is enjoying a 26-inch base with all but two runs open. It’s operating Fridays – Sundays.
Ski Apache has 37 inches and 20 of 55 runs skiable.
Sipapu has 43 inches and 33 of 43 runs open.
Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski and Snowshoe Area has an excellent 54-inch base and all its trails are opened and freshly groomed.
Crested Butte sits on a 56-inch base, and has opened most of its Extreme Limits double-black terrain.
Daniel Gibson is the author of New Mexico’s only comprehensive ski guidebook, Skiing New Mexico: Snow Sports in the Land of Enchantment (UNM Press, 2017). He is a member of the North American Snowsports Journalist Association and has written on the topic for newspapers coast to coast, web sites, and magazines including Powder, Ski and Wintersport Business. His first day on wooden skis with wooden edges came at age 6 in 1960 on a snowy day at the former Santa Fe Ski Basin. He can be reached at [email protected] or via www.DanielBGibson.com.
This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead