When you purchase your lift ticket at Copper Mountain, you'll have to decide between a full-day, or a half-day ticket. Obviously you go with the full day (you couldn't even scratch the surface of Copper in a half), but the whole question itself is misleading. You see, the team at Copper works around the clock, so even if you ski from open to close you're really only skiing a half day in the eyes of those who work behind the scenes. For my most recent adventure in Colorado Ski Country, I tagged along with one of these everyday heroes, a man named Curt Bender, a Level-3 Operator on the Copper Slope Maintenance team.
Bender is everything one could want in a snowcat operator: he's experienced, doesn't mind the cold, entertains you with 80 years worth of ski grooming history, and is nocturnal. Bender is held in high regard throughout the ski industry; for 20 years Bender was a professor of Ski Area Operation at Colorado Mountain College.
I arrived ready to photograph and shoot video of grooming at Copper Mountain at the Copper Slope Maintenance office about 4:30pm after enjoying a day on the slopes. From there we set out to groom the new U.S. Ski Team Speed Center, which had seen a lot of action in the past few days. Because the slope is meant for training the US Ski Team's elite racers, it is steep and the snow is intentionally firm. This necessitates the use of what's called a winch-cat. Essentially it is a Pisten Bully snowcat with a small crane mounted on the back. A cable from this crane, or winch, is connected to a mounting point at the top of the hill. When the cat is in motion the winch engages automatically, assisting in pulling the cat up the hill or lowering it down. The whole thing is actually pretty simple and keeps the snowcats from sliding or skidding, which would compromise the surface of the race hill.
From here we began the task of planning our route so as to ensure a smooth surface, minimize risk of slipping, and work as efficiently as possible. Efficiency is important to Copper and it shows; the team of groomers I was working with was like a Swiss watch - a Swiss watch that ran on diesel, had 400 horsepower and about a million flashing lights.
Grooming seems simple, but it's really fairly complex. Cat operators must think about the snow, the terrain, the other groomers, the position of their winch cable, and many other potential hazards. A typical shift for Bender runs from 4pm to midnight. It's dark, cold, and can be very demanding physically and mentally. That said, Bender does admit he likes the solitude he finds in the cab of his machine, and enjoys the time it gives him to reflect on his family, fishing, and where he's going to ski tomorrow. Here's a look behind the scenes in to the life of a snowcat operator at Copper Mountain.
Copper Mountain is known for many things, and the excellence of their grooming is one of them. Some skiers prefer smooth groomed runs, some like to hit the sculpted features in the terrain park, and the U.S. Ski Team just likes to point 'em down hill. Whatever you like to do on the mountain, the next time you hit the slopes in Colorado you can thank any number of unsung heroes who work hard to make your experience in Colorado Ski Country a memorable one.
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-John Trousdale, Mountain Correspondent, Colorado Ski Country USA