The Art of Snow

Big Mountain's fleet of snow machines and alpine snowcats work around the clock to make winter in Whitefish

By Tristan Scott

WHITEFISH – Every winter, from dusk until frigid dawn, the luminous beams of alpine snowcats rove up and down Big Mountain’s vertical slopes, laying tracks of velvet carpet before furrowing the runs into ribs of corduroy.

On cold, clear nights, the yellow orbs are visible from this ski town’s valley floor, twinkling silently against the mountain’s south face, a Zen-like calm projecting down as the snow-fairies perform their elegant dance, the labor as natural as a firefly’s bioluminescence, the machines’ operators warm inside their cabs and Carhartts, a thermos of something warm at their side.

When the sun rises, they’ll have laid freshly groomed blankets of narrow-wale snow. By afternoon, the ski runs of Whitefish Mountain Resort will have been rendered humped and choppy and the fleet of groomers, working in two shifts totaling 17 hours, will resume the Sisyphean task of combing the snow into an even canvas, a revolving rear tiller perforating the squally waves of white.

In 2012, readers of SKI Magazine recognized the groomers at Whitefish Mountain Resort by ranking the ski area 11th in the nation for quality grooming, a significant improvement over the previous year, when Big Mountain was ranked 22nd.

Last year, the resort added a new grooming machine called a winch cat to its stable, and this year, with the addition of a new chairlift to Flower Point and another 200 acres of north-facing terrain, the mountain again expanded its grooming fleet with the purchase of two new snowcats, and hopes to raise the bar even higher.

The new purchase included a Piston Bully PB100 with an eight-foot wide blade to groom hard-to-reach spots like the narrow skier tunnels, which frequently devolved into ice chutes by afternoon. Additional upgrades to snowmaking in the beginner ski areas will enhance the experience for lessons and new skiers and riders.

The groomer crew of 18 operators boasts a collective experience of more than 150 years, most of them logged on Big Mountain, and the workforce sees little turnover, grooming supervisor Rory Kizer said.

The resort’s purchase of a winch cat, a machine that can be anchored to trees using a winching cable and a rotating boom, allows the operators to cover steep, soft terrain, yo-yoing along the vertical ski runs in conditions that would cause a free-grooming machine to slide, ruining the work.

Hanging from a spider thread of steel cable, the groomers can winch along steep black diamond runs, like Powder Trap, which previously went un-groomed.

Whitefish Mountain Resort spokesperson Riley Polumbus said more skiers complimented the high level of grooming last season than ever before.

“We are more efficient and getting more runs groomed, and that is all exciting,” she said.

The Flower Point triple chairlift will add 200 acres of terrain to the north side of the mountain, which was previously only accessible by hiking. In 2013 Whitefish Mountain Resort cut six groom-able intermediate runs, all of which will now be fully accessible from the new lift.

The Flower Point chair also will create a stand-alone pod of skiing where guests can explore the new runs and newly gladed tree areas while helping to further spread skiers and riders out at the resort. The Flower Point area is known for its dependable early and late season snow conditions and advanced tree skiing.

“Day in and day out Whitefish Mountain Resort has some of best snow conditions in the country; this new terrain is in an area known for its deep, dry snow,” said Whitefish Mountain Resort President Dan Graves. “If you’re a regular customer or someone discovering us for the first time, you’ll love the skiing off of Flower Point.”

Due to the addition of the Flower Point chairlift, the resort has expanded three departments, hiring four new employees in the lift department, two new ski patrollers and another groomer, as well as more grooming hours.

“New lifts means new jobs,” Polumbus said. “We’re excited for a great winter.”

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