You’ve seen us talking about how groomed runs are the place to be in this dry spell, and that continues to be true — especially in the mornings. By request of our readers, we’ve put together a primer on grooming in our current conditions. The grooming team completes their work at night, so guests don’t get to see the difficult, nuanced work that they perform. Contrary to popular belief, it is not nearly as simple as mowing the lawn. In fact, it is such a unique task that there really is not a good analogy for it.
Weather & Snow Conditions
We have now been without snow for over a month. Though there is a small chance of snow next Monday, we are mostly looking at the continuation of warm, sunny days. If you’ve been here recently, you’ve probably gotten to enjoy the pleasant weather. You’ve probably also been steering clear of off-piste runs unless it is the late afternoon. Our snow is in a melt/refreeze cycle, and each night when temperatures drop, our groomers are out on the mountain putting trails back together.
Grooming Crash Course: How does it work, anyway?
Our goal is to create a uniform grooming experience across both mountains. All grooming crews at both Palisades and Alpine report to the same Director, and each day, the crews follow the same schedule. After chairlifts close at 4pm and Ski Patrol has completed their sweep, the first grooming shift begins their workday. Around midnight, when they finish their shift, a second crew takes over and works until 9am opening.
If you saw some of the trails around 9pm or so, you’d probably be surprised. As Palisades Grooming Manager Craig Patterson put it, “We literally have to destroy the mountain before we put it back together.” Tilling snow to create corduroy is the easy part. A LOT has to happen before tilling. In spots like the confluence of Mountain Run and Headwall, skiers and snowboarders tend to create valleys throughout the day. Grooming machines have to cross-push snow in this area to flatten it out, then they can use a tiller to create a smooth surface.
The first grooming shift tends to focus on areas that get sun early and need to stay firmer in the morning, such as Siberia, Lakeview, Scott, Sherwood, or any of the runs that our Ski Teams will utilize. The second shift, meanwhile, will hit some of the spots that don’t get as much sun before completing any beginner terrain last. Throughout the day, lifts like Bailey’s Beach and Mountain Meadows don’t change much (no moguls are created, not a lot of significant snow movement), so that snow just gets tilled. Plus, since it was groomed most recently, it will still be soft in the morning, which is better for first-time or low-level skiers & riders.
Groomers use machines called Winch Cats to move up and down the mountain while attached to a steel cable, which is especially helpful when moving heavy loads of snow. Winches are also used on steep or dangerous slopes or on any project where extra traction is required. When a cable isn’t in use, this is known as “free grooming.” Free groomers work in a pack to groom runs, usually with one leader and 2 to 4 more machines following. Grooming machines also have 4 different ways that they can process snow and develop a surface: they can use the blade, the tracks, the tiller, or the finishing comb on back. Using any of these implements can change the balance of the machine, so when grooming in a group, the groomer has to match the balance of all the other machines grooming with them. It is no easy task!
Our grooming fleet comes in a few shapes and sizes. Like a set of golf clubs, each one has a different intended use. For example, smaller cats are great for turning tight corners, building lift ramps, and fitting into smaller spaces (like the barn at the top of Alpine Bowl Chair). These smaller cats, however, are very lightweight and therefore not as efficient for grooming wider slopes.
On this current hardpack snow that we have, groomers have their tiller settings cutting a bit deeper than average while applying downward pressure. For clarity, tiller teeth are about 3 inches long, and machines offer a variety of tiller settings, including up/down pressure and cutting depth. If a groomer is working in powder, they will not cut as deep and will use less pressure.
Grooming in Context: KT-22
Due to the firm snow we are finding on ungroomed trails each day, the Saddle has really been the only thing open on KT-22 as of late. This means that thousands of skiers and snowboarders are all riding on the same trail again and again and again. Throughout the day, they push snow to the bottom of the run — and not just a little bit of snow. We’re talking huge amounts of snow that migrate from the top of KT-22 to the bottom terminal by 4pm. Groomers have to push ALL of this snow from the bottom of the Saddle back up to the top of the hill. Once all the snow is back where it came from, then it gets tilled.
Grooming in Context: Siberia
If you’ve skied Siberia, you know how steep that slope is — a 42-degree angle, to be exact. On skis or a snowboard, it can feel like you’re standing on the edge of the earth. Now picture being up there in a grooming machine! As mentioned above, our team typically grooms Siberia on the first shift. It can take 6 to 7 hours for a machine to take multiple passes at Siberia and cover up any rocks that have been exposed by the recent sun. In the late afternoon, you might see members of our grooming team taking a ski lap of Siberia before their shift to test how the grooming product held up overnight and throughout the day.
Grooming in Context: Sherwood
Have you been on Sherwood recently? If so, you may have noticed a few patches of brown dirt starting to show here and there by the afternoon. When the ground gets exposed, snowmelt increases rapidly, so grooming has been filling in these pockets every single night. In the Sherwood area, they farm for snow by searching for snowdrifts, digging in the trees, or pushing snow down from up above wherever possible. Sherwood is a south-facing lift so it, along with Scott and Lakeview, typically gets groomed on first shift like Siberia does.
Grooming in Context: Silverado
Much of our current snowpack is firm enough that it is conducive to grooming. However, there are several places where we have a hard exterior shell on top with sugar snow underneath. Trying to drive a machine through that sugar snow is like trying to go uphill in sand. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Recently, Silverado has lost 3 feet on the ramp from wind and sun, AND it is experiencing this hard shell over sugar snow effect. Our grooming team is concerned that if they try to rebuild the road, the machine(s) will break through the ice layer and get stuck in that sugar snow. This could effectively destroy the road for several weeks; a few inches of snow would not suffice to fix it, so we would need FEET of snow for it to get repaired. Silverado remains closed while we weigh the risks and benefits of rebuilding the road.
Looking Forward: What To Expect
While we did receive an amazing 17.5 feet of total snow in December, snow never falls straight down or evenly. You will see that some areas are thinner than others and will melt more quickly. Plus, winds have really been beating on our ridgelines. This is especially noticeable on lifts such as Emigrant, which is pretty barren up top due to the combination of East winds and constant sun exposure. Granite Chief, Headwall, and Sherwood have also been victims of this wind, which is holding up as the longest sustained East wind in memory. In the Granite Chief area, groomers have been pushing snow all the way from the boundary up to the road in order to maintain it! These conditions are not the easiest to work in, but our team is doing a fantastic job of keeping it all together.
Quick Lift & Terrain Notes
- Alpine Bowl Chair is back on the schedule. Earlier this week, it had an electrical issue for which we did not have a spare part. The part has since arrived and the chair is fixed.
- Tiegel Terrain Park at Alpine is OPEN! More features will be added tonight as well.
- NASTAR on Shirley will be closed again this Saturday & Sunday for a private event.
- Last week, we estimated that Sherwood and Lakeview had about three weeks left before they had too little snow to operate. We are sticking with this estimate, leaving about 2.5 weeks left for those lifts unless we get some snowfall.
- You can always see what has been groomed by checking the Palisades Tahoe Mobile App or the Lift & Grooming Status page on the website.