It has been the year of the groomer. Donnie Jones, a thirty-five year veteran of driving grooming machines at Red Lodge Mountain, agreed to let me ride shotgun in one of the Piston Bully Winch Cats. They are big, and it's difficult to climb into the cab over the treads. Motoring up Show Off Alley and Chicken Trail instead of skiing down, the differences in perspective and pace were noticeable.
Calm at the controls, he seldom took his eyes off the snow, adjusting the front blade to scrape a smooth surface and shifting the back tiller to leave the ridged wake we call corduroy. The one thing he wants skiers to know is that, because of changing snow conditions, "it's not gonna be perfect all the time" but he enjoys trying to make a good ski area for everybody.
It took over two hours, at least five round trips, to groom Lazy M. The flat light after sundown makes it harder to see the edges of finished tracks. Sometimes the blade sticks in soft snow. It takes a while to chop off bumps, being careful to get just the right amount.
In his nights on the mountain, he has seen pine marten, elk, and snowshoe rabbits. When asked about fear or danger, he replied, "You can slide. That's no fun, but for the most part these things will go up and down anything." It was surprising how steep certain places looked--approaching the lift shack at the top of Grizzly, turning between lift towers, and easing over and down the Face of M. For the steepest runs, the Cat is winched onto anchors called "dead men" located all around the mountain. The rotating winch boom raises and lowers the Cat.
"It should be pretty nice for skiing tomorrow," he said when he dropped me off at the lodge. He would take one more run up M to smooth over the last of the rough stuff, before moving on to Drifter. He takes pride in seeing the mountain cleanly groomed. The next morning I skied the results--sweet corduroy, no clumps, just what Donnie Jones had in mind.