No, I’m not talking about that perfect haircut. This week I’ll be dealing with something that goes on behind the scenes at the ski club, the thing that makes it the place to be when winter comes. I’m talking about trail grooming, something often taken for granted.
If you have done much skiing at all, you will have noticed how much difference a well-groomed trail makes. Packed trails with well-laid tracks make the ski experience much more pleasurable.
You glide more smoothly, with less effort and more control as you cruise along perfect tracks. You now have time to take in the scenery rather than concentrating on avoiding obstacles.
As a contrast, think of those times you have skied on ungroomed or icy trails. In marginal conditions, as we often experience in early winter or late spring, grooming not only makes a huge difference to the pleasure of the activity. It can also make the difference between being able to ski or not.
The goal of grooming is to produce smooth, firm (but not too firm), consistent trails with even, perfectly-aligned tracks. Grooming takes care of icy spots, evens out the lumps, and compresses the snow to just the right consistency. Snow that’s too soft makes harder work for the skier; too hard, and control becomes an issue.
As you probably have noticed, trails that have been well-packed retain their snow much better when conditions warm up, allowing us all to ski both earlier and later in the season.
Trail grooming lies somewhere in that grey area between science and art form. The skilled groomers know their equipment and what it will do to various snow types. They know when to groom and – just as important – when not to groom.
Most skiers never see the groomers. They are out at all hours of day and night – often at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, choosing optimum conditions to make sure the snow sets up just right.
But the work begins well before the snow flies.
Good grooming starts in the summer, when trail workers are out smoothing trails, trimming trees and mowing those pesky willows that pop up everywhere.
At the Whitehorse Cross Country Ski Club, we have been also spreading wood chips onto our trails over the years to smooth out the bumps and to retain moisture. Smooth trails mean better skiing with less snow.
As soon as the first few flakes of snow start sticking to the ground in the fall, club groomers are out packing the snow with a fleet of ancient but serviceable twin-track snowmobiles. This snow provides the base for future grooming efforts and snowfalls.
It’s often enough to ski on for the hard core, as the club holds its collective breath, waiting for the real snow to start.
As the snow gets deeper, tracks get laid in and more specialized equipment comes out. Graders smooth and level the snow, ensuring consistency. Tracksetters follow along behind the graders, laying that perfect track.
When the snow is deep enough, the big guns come out. The club’s PistenBully (commonly referred to as “the PB”) is used when snow gets deeper. It can renovate, pack and trackset snow in one operation, and does a great job as long as there is enough snow. One machine does the work of three or four snowmobiles.
Come springtime, when trails can turn icy, the PB is the go-to machine for turning that ice into perfect spring snow. It is expensive, but critical in those tough conditions.
All of this takes time; there have already been many hundreds of hours put in this season by our crew of more than 20 groomers. But everyone agrees it’s worth it and they do a great job for us.
Next time you are on your skis, look at the detail of the tracks around you and think of what it would be like without them. And thank a groomer the next time you meet him or her.
See you on the trails.
Claude Chabot is executive director of the Whitehorse Cross Country Ski Club. If you have questions about the club or its extensive network of trails, you can reach Claude at [email protected]