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By Kelly J. Hayes | Photo: Photos by Daniel Bayer and Aspen Skiing Company | February 12, 2013
Skillful snowcat operators prowl the night, artfully manipulating the snow for our skiing and boarding pleasure.
When most people think of farming, Carhartt coveralls and Kubota tractors come to mind. But if you consider farming to be cultivating what Mother Nature provides and then harvesting it for the good of man, well, then, that describes perfectly the work of the snow farmers.
Snow farmers tend our winter snows, sculpting the mountains for our skiing and boarding pleasure. Rather than tractors, they maneuver sleek, Italian-designed Prinoth snowcats, as they style our slopes with the skill of a Jermyn Street bespoke tailor. Each night, they move, mold, groove and groom the snow into perfectly proportioned pipes for hucking, and they level manicured trails for carving. Their efforts each season allow the snow riders to experience excellent conditions and the ski operators to get the most monetary yields from the winter harvest.
“We owe them our season,” says Aspen Skiing Company Vice President of Mountain Operations Rich Burkley. “They are our MVPs.”
Each night, while Aspen wines, dines, loves and lives, the mountains hum with the purr of Prinoths and the swoosh of snow guns, which serve to enhance the moisture from Pacific storms. When we step into the gondola or head up a chairlift in the morning, it is just the start of another splendid ski day. But for snow farmers, dawn signals the end of a solitary graveyard shift spent toiling on dark, dangerous slopes in subfreezing temperatures.
“It’s a different world out there,” says Aspen Mountain Trails Director Joey Giampaolo, who has been tending the snow crop there since 1992. “On big weather nights—I mean you’re really out in it. Some people don’t get [the allure of the work], but it’s kind of secluded and peaceful.”
In lean snow years, the trick is to get the most from the least. Snow farmers use local knowledge to collect the snow where it falls and disperse it to areas that need it most. “At the bottom of Elkhorn, there is a lip that forms in the wind,” says Giampaolo. “We cut that off and drag the snow to where we need it.” They borrow from the dumps to seed Spar Gulch on Ajax, or they feather powder from the perimeter of the Powerline Glades into the heart of Mick’s Gully. Finding places where the wind and terrain have conspired to collect the highest accumulations—and sharing that wealth—takes years of experience.
When the dumps come, the task evolves. While safety is always the focus, it becomes paramount as snow is shifted to protect skiers and ski patrollers from potential avalanches and snowfalls. “We address the concerns of the patrol, the ski school, even guests who would like to see particular areas worked on,” Giampaolo says. Keeping the groomers smooth while letting the powder dogs ride securely takes precedence. “When you get a big dump, it is luxurious,” he says. “There is so much more to work with. We really look forward to deep snow.”
Instead of pitchforks and shovels, snow farmers rely on high-tech snow guns and ultrasleek Prinoths to till their fields. The snow guns can blow 24 hours a day if need be, operated mostly by an automated control panel that takes into account temperature, humidity and a bevy of other weather-related conditions to ensure the machines emit snow with just the right ratio of moisture.
According to Burkley, Aspen Skiing Company relies on an all-Italian force to keep the mountain functioning, with 27 Prinoths plying the hillsides at any given time. These snowcats have interior cabs designed by Pininfarina, also an Italian company, and joysticks that allow drivers to place their tillers in just the right spot at just the right time to achieve the perfect pitch. “They’re little tanks,” Giampaolo laughs, “but we don’t lack for comfort—air-ride seats, four-point seatbelts, an iPod jack… some guys even use their satellite radio.”
The snow farmers move snow from one place and put it in another, covering the imperfections in pitches. They knock down massive moguls on the steepest slopes and turn them into supple groomers. They magically transform Colorado water into the lightest, driest powder possible. And they create carpets of corduroy that ripple under our boards, giving us a feeling that can only be described as pure joy. Snow farmers are indeed our MVPs.