From the ML vaults. Words :: Grant Stoddard.
I’ve never met Susan Osborne but I’m familiar with her work; every winter, I spend a lot of my time destroying it. Osborne, a 39-year-old resident of Pemberton, is a Whistler Blackcomb snowcat operator and over the past decade she has laid down countless thousands of kilometres of corduroy.
If you’ve ever gazed toward Whistler Mountain on a clear winter’s night, you’ve likely seen the headlights of her seven-ton machine spasmodically crisscrossing the sky like some drunken comet.
There are two grooming shifts at Whistler Blackcomb. Afternoons, which start when the lifties are flipping up seats at around 4 pm and Midnights, which as the name suggests, begin around the witching hour and go until 650 pancake-stuffed “fresh-tracks breakfast” skiers are vomited out of the Rendezvous the following morning.
A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of riding shotgun with Andy Turner, a senior cat operator who works the afternoon grooming shift on Blackcomb. When I asked him about the solitude of the job he shrugged it off, noting that for his entire shift the village below is crawling with revelers and bar stars that keep Whistler hopping.
“But the midnight shift,” he added, “now that’s gotta be lonely. Those guys are a little different. You kind of have to be.” Susan, a 10-year veteran of the Midnight shift, laughs at that characterization, but ultimately agrees.
“Desolate is definitely a good word for how it can feel sometimes,” she says. “Especially when a blizzard rolls in and you have to just stop until it abates a little. I mean, sitting there in the dark with the wind howling, not being able to see two feet in front of you…it can be pretty intense.”
Intense is putting it mildly. A thick whiteout of sideways-blowing snow can disorient and confuse even veteran cat drivers making it difficult to discern speed and direction. Some even develop vertigo.
Then there’s the frequent, terrifying sensation of the machine hitting an unconsolidated area of snow and suddenly sliding into the darkness.
“We get some really good, inadvertent adrenaline rushes when the snow doesn’t grip,” Susan says, adding that she gets that rush at least once a night.
As brutal as the conditions can be outside, the cockpit of a WB grooming cat is surprisingly cozy and high-tech. Each $300,000 machine sports ergonomically designed heated seats, recessed cup holders, a more than adequate sound system, a computerized touch-screen display and programmable climate control. Despite the sheer horsepower needed to move seven tons of metal and track uphill through the steep and deep, the snowcat’s cockpit is relatively quiet, or at least it could be.
“I love music,” Susan says. “I’m always blasting something and it usually fits with the feel of the shift.” She likes heavy metal to start her shift with, especially on stormy nights as it helps bolster her courage. When there’s a long list of tasks to be done she blasts techno and as the sun comes up she rounds out the night with reggae or trance.
While no expense has been spared in making the drivers physically comfortable in the cat’s womblike cockpit, not much can be done for the operators who frequently “sense things” on certain parts of the mountain.
“I don’t want to sound like a quack,” Susan says. “But there are definitely certain parts of the mountain where myself and others feel that there’s…um… spirit activity. So that adds another level of intensity…”
Despite the restless spirits, every now and then Susan likes to step outside of the cat and let her hair get whipped around by the snowy tempest. She does it to feel connected to an environment she gets to enjoy like virtually no one else does. “A sunrise on a bluebird day is quite the payoff after a busy shift.”
Susan reports that boredom is rarely an issue, each working a predetermined list of areas that need attention. By and large, the late-shift groomers are perfectionists who preen the runs with the optimum riding experience in mind.
“Those of us who ski and ride love to strap in immediately after our shift ends and sample some of the beautiful corduroy we just made,” she says. “Unless it’s a powder day of course.“
Everyone loves pow but hauling ass down groomer and carving lines into perfect virgin corduroy is actually more socially responsible – you’re not just mussing up some late-shifter’s masterpiece, you’re also creating job security.
From ML Coast Mountains, Early Winter 2011.