Sculpting Powder

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – On a clear and dark night, one can watch from the valley below as little lights silently and swiftly travel up and down the face of Big Mountain at Whitefish Mountain Resort. But up on the mountain itself, it’s a much noisier line of work.

Every night, from dusk until dawn, two shifts of snow groomers attack the slopes of Big Mountain, preparing the snow for another day of use and abuse by skiers. According to supervisor Rory Kizer, crews set out to groom anywhere from 250 to 300 acres of trail every night. How much of that is completed often depends on weather conditions, but Kizer said the more snow there is, the easier the job can be.

“It’s nice to have some snow to push around and it makes it a lot easier to groom,” he said, adding that a lack of snow this season has been challenging, but last week’s storm helped.

On a recent evening, snow whipped through a beam of light in front of Jared Lovern as he firmly gripped a joystick and maneuvered a Caterpillar-powered BR 350 snow groomer. Lovern, who has been a groomer for five years, said he must adapt to weather conditions that are constantly changing.

Every day at 4 p.m., Lovern climbs aboard his groomer and heads out across the trails to groom slopes and build jumps inside the snowboard park, also known as Central Avenue, just behind the Village. While Lovern and his machine work the park, another fleet heads up the mountain and grooms the main slopes, often working in a staggered row. Kizer said the purpose of grooming is to make a smooth and safe surface for skiers and take the air out of fresh snow.

Lovern said he enjoys the “surgical” aspect of his job and using his own creativity to make jumps and runs the way he sees fit. Although he snowboards, Lovern said he doesn’t get out on the slopes much and certainly not on the jumps he creates, joking that as a 30-year-old he’s more likely to get hurt than land anything.

“I get my kicks out of building and knowing it’s good and it’s open,” he said.

Originally from North Carolina, Lovern said the mountains attracted him to Montana and when he first arrived at Big Mountain he worked as a cook. After getting to know the right people, he became a groomer and eventually was assigned to maintain the snowboard park.

There is no formal training for groomers, who operate a piece of machinery that, brand new, costs $275,000. Kizer said when a new groomer is hired, they spend a few nights riding with a veteran and then they take the controls themselves.

“It sort of comes over time, but I’m still learning,” Lovern said. “There’s no playbook.”

Jared Lovern uses an alpine snowcat to skillfully rearrange features on Central Avenue at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

The job of maintaining the machines, which weigh in at more than 18,000 pounds, falls to the crew at the maintenance shop. In the moments before the first crews climb aboard their groomers, mechanics like Josh Harmon quickly check gauges and make sure the equipment – a large plow, huge steel and rubber tracks and a rear tiller that grinds and smooths the snow – is ready for another long night of work.

Harmon, who has worked on everything from motorcycles to hot rods, said the same mechanical techniques are often required to keep the nine snow groomers in operation.

“I maintain anything with wheels and treads,” he said. “You can go from fixing a snow blower to the hydraulics on a groomer and that’s nice. You’re not fixing the same thing everyday.”

Kizer said the machines rarely need major repairs during the winter season, thanks in part to the extensive maintenance the equipment receives during the offseason. But when the snow is flying, neither man nor machine gets much of a break.

For almost eight hours Lovern works from the warm comfort of the machine’s spacious cab, climbing and crawling over steep inclines. Lovern said at first driving up snow banks to the point where it almost feels like the groomer is going to flip or tumble backwards is a little nerve racking, but eventually the reality sets in – that’s what the machine was made to do. Still, Lovern said the ride “makes your heart race.”

And for the skiers and snowboarders, Lovern’s ride is a necessary one, “taking out the high spots and filling in the lows” and guiding the little light up and down the face of Big Mountain, sculpting the snow as he sees fit.

“It’s like taking a big spatula and putting frosting on a cake,” he said.