Skiing at a resort is a contradiction. On one hand, the sport is painfully social: standing in lift lines, riding up with strangers making compulsive small talk, soaking in a tub at the end of the day comparing runs; yet, the actual act of skiing is a solitary pursuit. Your glorious powder line is your own. You're the only one responsible for the spectacular crash that left you double-ejected, frozen snow packed onto bare skin melting slowly down your back.
At the far end of the spectrum though, nothing in skiing seems quite so solitary as the job of a snow-cat driver. Grooming runs in the wee hours of the morning at the far reaches of a resort? Sounds peaceful to the point of terrifying. Add in adverse weather conditions and terrain that can reach 45 degrees for a unique blend of terror.
To reach super-steep terrain, groomers use a "winch cat." A 7/16" diameter steel cable attaches to trees at the top of the run, then dangles the groomer down the slope. Rob Gayman, the grooming manager at Mount Hood describes the experience:
WATCH winch cat operators work their magic:
It's somewhat like dropping off a cliff. At the top break-over as the machine teeters above the brink, your heart starts to palpitate and your natural survival instinct pushes you back into your seat. As the machine creeps forward and the operator adjusts the winch tension, the cat tilts forward into the darkness. The cat's lights don't shine down low enough - you can't see what lies below. It tilts more and more. You start to fall forward out of your seat. Now you're standing on the floor - surely this can't be right?
flickr photo via Jon Shave