The big snowmobile pulling a Ginzugroomer comes to a halt on Jack’s Trail. It must be 3 a.m. and time for the cross-country trail groomer to sip a hot drink and eat a few snacks. It’s pitch black, no moonlight dancing across the snow. Switching on her headlamp, Donni Reddington swivels 360 degrees to see if any predator eyes are looking back at her. Assured that there are none, she sits to refuel and enjoy the silent solitude that not many folks ever experience.
“It’s part of the excitement and adrenaline about working out there alone and being independent,” says Donni, who is new to the Methow Trails grooming team. “There’s a great sense of freedom and pleasure.”
Since its inception in 1977 as a small group of forward thinking valley residents, nonprofit Methow Trails has grown and facilitated the development of the nation’s largest Nordic ski trail system. The 120 miles of trails require a team of hardy individuals arriving at work around midnight to head out and till the trails into sweet, smooth corduroy with perfect tracks set for the next day’s skiers.
Five agile, yet powerful, Pisten Bully groomers — each with its own name (Ginger, Skooter, Hobbs, Hottie and Red) — make the job as efficient as possible. The latest machine (Ginger), purchased last year, is the Mazama Trails system groomer. Sitting in the cockpit feels like a virtual reality gaming experience with multi-functional controls and screens.
However, this is not simulation; it’s the real controls of a very large machine where some of its components — such as the tiller flaps (aka Dumbo ears) — are in the $10,000 each range. You wouldn’t accidentally want to clip the suspension bridge with one of those babies. The complete machine, which is made in Germany, costs well over $200,000.
The Pisten Bully is operated with an intuitive, double-jointed joystick and its 22 buttons. Hand movements are transferred directly to the blade. Lifting, lowering, changing cut angle, tilling and swiveling are precise, as if the machine is an extension of the operator. The groomers say, “It’s all about feel.”
Jake Valentine is a veteran groomer with 20 years of experience under his belt on Methow trails. It began as a winter ski bum job for a carpenter. He now runs the Mazama crew of three groomers — Dave Dewbrey, Scott Bingen and Donni. Jake relates that their No 1 priority is to provide skiers with the best possible groomed trails every day. For example, they are diligent about choosing turnaround spots that are not impactful to the pristine beauty of the trails.
The job requires knowledge of engines and having a game plan: thinking ahead about where you are going and what you are doing. It’s very possible to find yourself stuck, especially when operating the snowmobile and Ginzugroomer. Although there is always radio contact available, an operator is best served to be able to become unstuck independently. Methow Trails describes mechanic Brandon Richison as the “brains and brawn” who keeps the Pisten Bully snowcats and other grooming equipment in tip-top shape, pre-empting many on-trail issues.
Most challenging to the groomers is the condition of the snow, which, of course, they have no control over. When the temperature warms with precipitation falling as rain rather than snow, the trails are more fragile. Grooming in those conditions can cause more damage than good. Jake makes the call about when to send his groomers out.
Jake says that “tree bombs” are another test of patience and finesse to the groomers. When a snow-laden tree warms in the sun, it dumps its load and leaves a pile in the middle of the trail. Extra time is needed to restore the trail to corduroy and tracks.
One of the most difficult days that Jake remembers on the trail was on Christmas after a windstorm had toppled many trees. He spent all night cutting 37 trees off the trails. Holiday skiers may well have been unaware of the elves behind the scenes that night. “It was a lot of work,” he recalled.
Over the years, the biggest change that Jake has noted is the increased number of skiers. His advice to skiers is to contribute when possible to keeping the trails in good condition. A helpful plan is to carry a pair of loppers and clip off any rogue branch that has appeared on the trail. “It takes a community,” he says.
Kudos to the hard-working groomers and their machines!
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