Winching White Heat

For the past twenty years, I’ve been skiing Sunday River’s incomparable cord. I was a terrible, timid skier as a kid and could still be described as a recreational goober, but in that time I’ve always been in awe of the groomers. I would seek them out while riding in the car on Skiway Road, noticing a tiny sparkle on the faint outline of the mountain in the darkness, and would revel in the crisp corduroy as my family traveled in a pack down the trails the next day.

Fast forward to the present: After some scheming and very little convincing, I was permitted to ride shot gun in a snowcat. But not just any groomer—one of Sunday River’s winch cats on big, bad White Heat. The cat was a ten-year-old beauty operated by Steve Brown, who has been with the Sunday River grooming department for as long as I’ve been alive. “Call me Wiley,” he said. “How scary do you want this to be?”

“Terrifying,” I answered, and clambered up into the passenger seat.

As we took off from the ‘Bully Yard, Wiley told me about his time at the mountain. He took his first cat ride in 1988 with his brother who was an operator at the time. He moved back to Maine from Florida in ‘92 and made snow his first year. “I’m glad those days are over,” he said. “The first time I saw a groomer, I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” Wiley moved his way up the ranks to become a winch cat operator 12 years ago, and has since become a shift foreman, working as a mechanic for Sunday River’s snowcats, too.

We climbed up Cascades, to Upper Sunday Punch, and across Bim’s Whim until finally, we reached the top of White Cap. I checked my seat belt, and put my feet on the dash below the long front windshield. The view from the top isn’t quite the stunning panorama that you see on a clear day, but a series of twinkling lights from Mt. Abram, the Bethel Airport, and Sunday River’s base lodges.

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“Let’s see how far down we can make it without the winch,” said Wiley, and off we went, dragging our tiller to create that picture-perfect corduroy. On the second headwall, we began to slide, and for a moment, I thought that I’d made a giant mistake. Sure, I’ve skied White Heat countless times in all kinds of conditions, and taken my fair share of tumbles down its steep pitch, but none of those falls had been in a four ton piece of machinery. I pushed my feet into the dash harder and white-knuckled the edges of my seat.

Wiley slowed the cat to a stop and spun us around. “Well, guess it’s time to hook in then,” he chuckled, noticing my fight-or-flight panic.

As we made our way back to the top, I commented that all of the corduroy we’d put down just minutes before seemed to disappear. In the warm cabin of the snowcat, I hadn’t realized how much the wind had picked up. Driving back up through the snow-globe-like gusts, Wiley told me that sometimes the weather makes Sunday River’s signature corduroy a little less than stellar because the wind blows the freshly churned lines, or warm air that quickly drops to single digit temperatures freezes it near to solid.

I asked Wiley if he skied, as a shocking number of Sunday River Team Members don’t, and he admitted that he hadn’t in almost two seasons. For someone who was so in tune with the hill, from snow quality to pitch, it amazed me that he’d gleaned all of that information from inside the belly of the beast.

“I winch roughly five or six trails a night and by the time my shift is over here, I’m ready to get out, stretch my legs, and get some sleep,” he said. I can’t blame him, but I spent much of our ride asking which trails he had skied, and which ones he preferred to groom instead. He said that Right Stuff, due to its width and varying pitches, was the most fun for him to groom whether it needed winching or not.Feb12-00970.jpg

Wiley then hooked in the winch cable to a sturdy structure at the top of White Heat that’s often marked with bamboo during the ski day. He climbed back into the cat and away we crawled, back down the hill. He demonstrated different tensions on the winch and how they affect speed and grooming quality. With a tighter tension on the cable, the tiller can dig in farther, but the going is much slower, while a looser cable means faster speeds and more subtle stripes. Though the cat itself was ten years old, the winch had just been refitted with over 3,000 feet of new, heavy-duty cable.

On Wiley’s to-do list for the evening was a pile that was causing some issues and needed to be knocked down. A large mound of extra-dry manmade snow had collected on a ledge and dropped away drastically on the downhill side, unbeknownst to that day’s skiers as they soared off its lip. As he pushed the snow with his plow to make the pile less dangerous, we hung, suspended by the winch over the steep pitch. The only way I can describe it is like being in the front row on a very steep, slow-motion roller coaster.  He would back up slowly, and plow into the pile again, with giant chunks of snow tumbling below us. The thrill was contagious, and I had to physically hold my jaw to keep it from dropping.

We made six or seven passes up and down White Heat, and I forgot many of the hard-hitting interview questions I’d planned to ask during my ride. By the end of it, my muscles stopped clenching out of fear, and I was as relaxed as possible in my co-pilot seat. Once the Heat was finished, we moseyed back down Obsession and Heat’s Off, knocking down freshly blown snowmaking piles as we went.

Wiley dropped me off at the Mountain Operations garage, reminding me that he’s always happy to have some company in the snowcat. As you can imagine, it gets a little lonely out there. I will definitely, definitely be taking him up on that deal, but only if we get to go on Black Hole next.

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