Like other members of the feline family, these cats spend a lot of time grooming. They are big, dangerous, often nocturnal and sightings are rare. Up until the other day I had only heard about the cats lurking on the BOP course. While running a safety stop on Red Tail last Saturday I got to watch a winch cat for several hours reeling up and down his cable while grooming the finish area. That created lots of questions for me about these specialty groomers. I did notice as the cat went below the red tail jump that the cable became low in the snow and would’ve been impossible for a skier to see, presenting an undetectable danger.
I spent some time the next day, quizzing Greg Johnson Beaver Creek Mountain Director and Chief of Race, and Kevin McDevitt, United States Ski Association Technical Advisor, about the nature of these beasts.
Equipped with diesel engines you’d need to drop about ½ million to acquire one. They weigh in at over 25,000 lbs. and one of the biggest ones at Beaver Creek, known as the “The Beast” has 590 horsepower. There are 6 of them used on the BOP race course.
These groomers are meant for steep pitches because they are running off a cable spool on the back that winches them up and down the hill. The free end of the cable is anchored further up the pitch. An arm over the top of the cab pays out the cable, allowing the cat to rotate and face the same direction going up or down. This lets them to maintain control and groom snow both up and down on really steep slopes that a regular cat couldn’t negotiate. The ½” cable can pay out a length 1000 meters. Yes, the cable can break completely with dangerous consequences but more often it is a strand of the cable that breaks requiring a replacement. I know the one I was standing guard for did have a strand break on Monday and they brought in a replacement machine. While I was running the check point, the operator would pause for folks to pass when he was at the top of the Red Tail pitch, NOT when he had a long length of cable paid out down toward the finish line.
As I mentioned they are fixed to an anchor point higher on the slope, usually, a permanently installed “pick.” These picks only stick out of the ground a few feet but they are actually 20 ft. long concrete filled steel posts sunk deep into the earth and depending on what they are sunk into there could be additional concrete involved. The one I found on course looked like it was a good 12” in diameter. While picks are the preferred object they can anchor off of a strong tree trunk, one of at least 24” in diameter. If you look at the course map on the Tuff Shed besides the numbers indicating nets there are numbers that indicate the location of these pick points.
Besides running off of a pick, a second machine can be utilized as a pick. It will be parked higher on the slope facing downward with the blade dug in and an eye on the top of the blade will become a pick point for the lower grooming cat. Two cats can work in a tandem set up with a lower cat picking off of higher cat that is anchored further up. A higher cat anchored off to pick up the mountain and then bringing up a lower cat is called a yo-yo
All this cable tension is managed on a monitor in the cab. If the tension builds too high, then the operator will raise the blade to push less snow and lower the tension on the cable system.
At Beaver Creek a winch cat will be kept on as a groomer for 5-6 years and then like other machinery will start to have parts that need repair. At about this age it will be moved into the utility pool. Utility pool machines are no longer groom but used to transport people and materials around the mountain. After about 12 years they are sold off to other ski areas that are happy to get these second hand machines.
A big faux paus is to call that guy running the cat a driver. They are “operators” with heavy equipment interface experience and often run other kinds of heavy equipment in the off season.
Make sure you obey cat closures and steer clear of these elusive and dangerous creatures.