SNOWBIRD, Utah, Feb. 10, 2010— -- We all know the old saying that you can't really understand another person's job until you've walked a mile in their shoes. Well what if those shoes are heavy, clunky ski boots?
Somehow I found myself one morning before dawn at the top of a mountain, in near blizzard conditions, climbing an iced-over metal ladder. Did I mention the ski boots?
I had come to the Snowbird Ski Resort to find out what it was like to bring this mountain to life each morning. My timing couldn't have been better: I arrived in the middle of a seven-day period where the ski area saw a whopping seven feet of snow. Needless to say, that complicated matters.
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The first thing to "wake" at the resort is the iconic 120-person tram, which climbs 2,900 feet in about 8 minutes. Before the ski patrol and lift operators can get to their positions, Richard Duckworth and his crew make sure the tram is up and running.
Each morning starts with routine safety checks to ensure that the communications and mechanical equipment are working. But this wasn't any ordinary morning. High winds are a tram's worst enemy. One gauge said that overnight the storm winds had gusted to more than 40 mph. Before running the tram, Duckworth needed to figure out if the winds had died down to a safe enough speed. The problem: he couldn't trust his gauges.
"It's not necessarily that it's always true thanks to ice getting on the wind cups," he said.
A Day at Snowbird Ski Resort
Luckily, one of the mountain's maintenance staff was high on the peak in a snow cat and could drive over to the tower and report back on conditions. There were strong winds, but not so strong that the trams couldn't run. One tram went up, another came down and Duckworth completed his safety checklist.
The tram that spent the night at the summit came to the base with iced-over windows and a layer of snow inside. It all had to be cleaned out. But don't expect any fancy, high-tech equipment here. Just a broom for the snow and a scraper for the windows.
"And you thought scraping your car was bad," tram operator Heather Fischer said as she cleared the windows of the 7,500-pound cabin.
Soon, members of the ski patrol made their first trips up the mountain, along with their avalanche rescue dogs, plus some boxes of explosives to blast away those avalanches.
Then it was my turn to brave the cold.
I rode up the tram with a group of lift operators and electricians, including Jason Peterson.
Our job was pretty simple: start up the lifts so people could begin skiing. The challenge was that visibility was barely 20 feet, the wind kept pushing into our bodies and all around us the ski patrol was setting off explosives to create avalanches so the snow wouldn't later slide into skiers below.
I knew I wasn't about to be buried in snow, but with each thunderous blast echoing around me, I instinctively checked for that rescue beacon a patroller had placed in my jacket less than an hour earlier.
It didn't calm my nerves to learn that every time we moved from one lift to another, we had to radio ski patrol. But given the conditions, I could easily see us skiing off a cliff by mistake.
Peterson was visibly calmer. Right before we climbed up an icy ladder at the top of a ski lift, I asked what it was like to work under these conditions.
"It's not too bad," he nonchalantly responded. "You know: you just stay warm and keep up your energy because there's plenty of shoveling to do on days like this."
Strong Snow Slows Ski Resort from Opening
It normally takes about 45 minutes to start up the lift. On a day like today, with more than a foot of fresh snow, that job can easily take twice as long.
When chairs on a high-speed lift reach the top of the mountain, they enter a terminal where they are separated from the fast-moving cable and are carried through a series of slower-moving wheels as skiers load or unload from the chair. The chairs are then reconnected to the cable and speed along.
There are a lot of moving parts in that transfer, and each of them needs to be cleared of snow in order for the lift to work as its prime.
Part of Peterson's duties in the morning include climbing up to those wheels, thumping them with a wrench to ensure they are intact and then clearing off all that fresh snow.
Too much snow here, or not enough anti-freeze on the track there can cause the chairs to come to a grinding halt and strand hundreds of skiers at the bottom of a remote trail.
Sometimes the work of one crew actually creates more work for other staffers.
At the top of one lift, all the snow from the ski patrol explosions fell in, burying the top of the lift. Skiers riding up would have been faced with a six-foot wall of snow when they reached the summit. So the lift technicians had to do some good-old fashioned snow removal.
But at this elevation, the thin air makes removing snow much harder. It also means that a lift might not be ready for that 9 a.m. open that skiers expect.
"They get upset when things aren't open," Peterson said, "but they need to realize that when we have a lot of snow like this, it's a lot of work to get things up and running."
Grooming the Ski Trails
The work doesn't end when the first skiers speed down the slopes.
Jim Baker oversees all the maintenance and upkeep of the mountain. In the fall, he is in charge of making snow before Mother Nature brings her own powder. By mid-season, his job is to maintain that snow with a team of snow cats and drivers who work through the night, grooming the trails and fixing anything that breaks during the day.
The drivers sit in a heated cabin, protected from the weather. But spending hours alone on the peak is a lonely job.
More than once, Baker has had a new driver call in during the dead of night, lost high on the mountain. Eventually, he said, you learn to identify the outlines of various trees and somehow navigate through a storm that way.
The snow cats are complex machines that need constant maintenance. Baker has an entire team on the mountain that fixes the cats and all of the heavy trucks used to plow the resort's roads and parking lots. But it's the 10 snow cats that work the hardest and require the most upkeep.
"I like to say they are an airplane built to do a bulldozer's job, and believe me, they break down quite a bit, but I love flying them," Baker said.
While night drives have their own hazards, during daylight hours a driver needs to watch out for fast-moving skiers.
The snow cats have loud sirens and are pretty hard to miss, but still Baker said as we climbed up one trail: you need to make sure that the skiers see you coming, especially with a blinding snow hurting everybody's visibility.
"You do not want them to hit you because they will lose," Baker said.
Of course, not every day is quite this rough.
"It's a nice office," Peterson told me at the start of our blizzard-like day. "Sometimes the office view is real nice in the morning."
Sure, there's nothing quite like sunrise at the top of an 11,000-foot snow-covered peak. Unfortunately, during my visit the only thing I got to see was snow, mostly snow covering my goggles.