At about five past six thursday morning I was standing in the dark outside the lodge at Bolton Valley waiting for my ride.
If you're anything like me, you think the two coolest things about seeing The Shining were the opening scene in which you suddenly realize that the Dies Irae is playing in the soundtrack and the super cool footage of the snowcat.
When you're skiing sweet corduroy first thing in the morning you should carry an awareness that someone worked all night driving a huge and complex machine up and down the slopes. I have always wondered what it's like to be inside the cab of one of those things.
So Thursday morning I met Mike, the snow reporter, in the hotel lobby at six o'clock and he walked me up to the place where the driver would pick me up on his downhill pass.
It is very quiet on the mountain in the early morning, and very dark. I am often on the mountain when the first chair spins, but that happens after sunrise, so I don't often see the mountain during hours of darkness. Yes, I know they have night skiing and I used to go sometimes but really the best hours of my day are before noon and with my minimal skiing skills and my failure to have a full set of connective tissue in either knee it's best if I go when i'm fresh and the trails are fresh.
It is a weird, silent landscape and I am straining my ears to hear the machine. I see the light way up through the trees and I'm guessing It's on Lower Fanny. Slowly the huge machine comes into view. It drives just past me, then stops. The driver gets out.
This is Bruce.
He comes around to my side and he shows me how to work the door handle (rubber covered and not where you might expect it) and where to step on the steel treads and where the handles are for climbing up into the cab.
Already this is way cool.
The door handle, by the way, once you are up in the cab is not so much a handle as it is a pedal.
The striking thing about the cab is how much of it is window. Past that, the seats are huge and comfortable and there's plenty on foot room right up to the bottom of the windshield, where there's a sort of footrest. That footrest will seem more important to me later.
Bruce has a wide array of controls around his seat: he has a pair of levers for his left hand, and a joystick for his right. The joystick has more buttons than a bassoon.
OK, not. A bassoon has nine buttons for your left thumb alone and the joystick in this vehicle probably only has six or eight buttons total.
It's still a lot.
And at Bruce's elbow is a console with rows and rows of switches. One of these switches controls the snazzy heated windshield wipers. I can only guess what the other switches do.
Above the driver's seat is a set of controls that works a really cool spotlight that shines out ahead of the cat and swivels very usefully so he can see way out ahead. That's really handy when you're driving a thing the size of a small condo on a ski slope.
Sometimes, Bruce tells me, you slide it a little.
It makes sense, but the idea of sliding a thing with that much mass sounds a little scary to me. When we go up a steep trail, we are nearly lying back in the seats. Going down, nearly standing on the footrests.
We're on trails I know well, but it's a little disorienting because bruce is driving up and down, around and around in circles. up one trail, down another. He makes a pass to smooth the trail and a pass next to it and then one to smooth out the seam until he gets all the way across.
He is so skilled that he seems hardly to be paying attention but I am noticing a lot of complicated machinery making a lot of subtle movements. On the front of the tractor is a 12-way plow. At first I mishear bruce and I think he is telling me it's a 12-weight, and I make a mental note to ask later what that means.
The blade goes up and down and side-to-side and it tilts and also has remarkably agile side flaps. 'Member that joystick with all the buttons? Yeah, that.
He uses the blade to scrape snow from where it's too high and to fill the bellies where there's not enough snow. It's kind of delicate; it's important to smooth the snow out so it skis nicely, but also you want to keep most of the profile of the underlying terrain.
The weight of the machine and the tracks themselves pack the snow down quite a lot behind the blade. Those levers for bruce's left hand? They control the treads, which move independently.
Behind the cat is the tiller. This is a huge wide thing with a spinning bar of teeth that chop up the snow very fine and then "dumbo flaps" that shape and comb it down after.
Bruce gives consideration to how many passes he needs to make to make the trail ski well. He thinks about whether beginners will be on a trail, or where bumps should be left in or how the snow will drift and which trails should be done just before the first lift spins. Trails off the Vista Chair need to be done before Vista opens and then he's got another hour to work Timberline.
After that, he grooms a terrain park, which is some fancy driving.
All those boxes and boards and jumps in the park? They're dug in. You can't just drive over them. The snow is only right once you have gone over it FORWARD, so anything that has an edge needs backing up and then pulling forward. Bruce has to back up to the edges of both the takeoffs and the landings and then pull forward. It's close quarters in there, with a lot of turning.
The most impressive driving of the morning, I think, is the part where he does the ramp at the top of the Timberline Chair. When we're there the chair is already spinning, so he has to back the tiller in and pull forward between chairs.
He could ask the lift op to stop the chair, he tells me, but if he can time it right he doesn't have to. He does it so smooth you almost wouldn't notice.
If he's showing off any, he's got a right to. It's a very good show.
The sun is up. The lifts are spinning. A little boy riding a lift above us waves. We wave back. The boy keeps waving. We wave some more. The boy's dad waves, too. It's the end of Bruce's shift. Before he goes home he has to clean the snow off the blades and fuel up the cat. He drops me off at the lodge and drives off toward the shop, snow falling.
The mountain is waking up. The snow is perfect.
I'm going home.