Nighttime Cat Operations
Cat operators, Brett and Mike, work through the night preparing the mountain for blissful skiing.
Do you ever wonder what happens after the last lift stops and the sun sets on another great day of skiing? Does the mountain turn silent and still as the day comes to a close? As we found out today, that is hardly the case.
A couple of our nighttime cat operators stopped by on their day off to answer questions from intrigued Facebook fans. Brett and Mike, five year veterans here at Vail, have seen some interesting things over the years of having the mountain all to themselves in the midnight hour. Read below for a summary of our Facebook fan questions along with Brett and Mike’s honest answers. Then, go further into the realm of grooming with this unique, behind the scenes video, blog.vail.com/video-behind-scenes-vail-grooming/
Q: Start with the obvious. What’s the scariest thing that has ever happened to you out there?
A: Mike says: Whenever visibility is low, things can get nerve wracking.
Q: Does it ever get creepy being alone in the back bowls or blue sky at night?
A: We’re pretty comfortable back there unless we have to get out of the cat at points.
Q: When do you sleep?
A: Mike-my hours are pretty normal, 2am or so to 9am I’ll be sleeping. Brett-my hours are a little more interesting, typically 1pm until 9pm or so.
Q: Is it possible for there be too much new snow so you can’t groom over it?
A: Definitely. The few feet of snow we recently received makes our job a bit more challenging than usual.
Q: Can I make a reservation for co-pilot in March when I come out?
A: For ride alongs, the easiest way to do a ride along is to go visit Game Creek at night, the driver will usually let you ride up front.
Q: What hours do you work grooming?
A: The night crew hours are 2:30 am – 1:30 pm while the overnight crew works 11 pm to 9 am.
Q: What do you do during the offseason?
A: When we are not fly fishing we are both on the summer trail crew.
Q: What does summer trail grooming entail?
A: Summer Trail Crew is a lot of erosion control – there is only one cat operating, it does some winch mowing later in the fall, which helps snow build up faster.
Q: What sights do you get to see that others may not due to the hours you are out there?
A: We get to see every sunrise and sunset from a vantage point that most people don’t. We can also see the snow cats at Copper Mountain and Beaver Creek from Silk Road.
Q: How did you get the job?
A: We both went to to school for Ski Area Management at Gogebic Community College in Ironwood Michigan, and came out here for an internship in 2009.
Q: Is it a job you will do till you retire? Does it pay well?
A: We get paid to do our hobby. It doesn’t really feel like work to us.
Q: I drove a pisten bully at Sunday River Maine in the early 70’s. We’d get a flat tire almost once a week and have to change it on the mountainside in the middle of the night. Have they made the machinery more durable in the last 40 years?
A: Yes, no flats anymore. Technology has advanced to solid rubber tires.
Fan reply: Sounds pretty comfy! The best part was an occasional aurora, have you been lucky enough to see one?
A: Not out here…
Q: How many cats does vail have? What’s the usual numbers working per night?
A: 30 machines that focus on grooming, 5 winch operators per night, and a park crew.
Q: Have you seen Sasquatch?
A: Lot of foxes, no sasquatch
Q: How much do you guys like winching?
A: Brett – Only done it a few times but it’s a lot of fun. It’s a separate crew, more veteran.
Fan reply: I heard some stories from diff mtns, sounds gnarly
Q: Have you ever worked with anyone from the Beaver Creek crew?
A: Brett – I went to Beaver Creek for 3 days last year on an exchange program.
Q: What runs are the rarest to get groomed…I’ve know I’ve seen Prima and Forever groomed…ONCE.
A: Morning Thunder is pretty rare, along with Lower Ledges, both require winches.
Fan reply: Yeah, it’s been ages since I’ve seen lower ledges groomed. Used to happen more When 9 went all the way down.
Q: What’s the least favorite run to groom and the favorite one to groom?
A: Mike – Grand Review is fun because of the trees and weaving and it’s a lot of work! Brett – My favorite is chopsticks because it’s wide open and you can shape and expand how you like. Mike – Flapjack is my least favorite because you can almost spend your entire shift on it, it’s so wide.
Q: Ever come across a stranded skier that patrol missed?
A: We see a lot of skinners and uphill access people at night. Make sure you have a light and reflective clothes. (edit – uphillers should call 754-3049 for info on where grooming operations are)
Q: How much snowmaking equipment have you destroyed over your career?
Q: What type of machine do you prefer to operate and why, Pisten Bully or Prinoth?
A: Mike – I drive both, they both do a great job – the Piston Bully cabins have things like seat heaters and sun roofs which are nice
Q: What’s your favorite music to groom to? See you tomorrow. Thanks for the best conditions!
A: Brett – one cat has Sirius radio, but we really listen to everything except classical and country.
Q: Do you get first tracks in the morning?
A: Mike – If I wake up early enough and get in the lift line like everyone else.
Q: How did you get a job as an operator? And how long did it take to become comfortable with the controls?
A: Took a couple months to get familiar with the controls.
Q: Do you fantasize about grooming potholed roadways as you drive your cars?
A: Mike – ALL THE TIME
Q: Do you ever groom with your lights off for a stretch on a bright full moon—just for the thrill?
A: We’ll stop and turn them off to enjoy the view for a minute…
Q: What’s the craziest animal you’ve ever seen?
A: Brett-We’ve seen moose, fox, and mountain lion tracks out there. Mike-Fox actually follow us at times because we scare the mice out.
Q: Is the entire machine run on hydros or only the blade and tiller?
A: The tracks blade and tiller are all hydraulic.
A special thank you to Brett and Mike for not only dropping by to answer questions but more importantly, for spending long nights preparing the mountain for all to enjoy.