Want to Become a Snowcat Operator?
Jim Lousberg Interview Continued
Even though most visitors are impressed with the sheer size of Vail Mountain, I think most would be surprised to learn just how complex our operation really is. We're responsible for laying down picture-postcard skiing conditions under some pretty extraordinary (and sometimes dangerous) conditions in all sorts of weather and conditions.
We generally begin hiring new Cat operators in the late fall. Although we do have some annual turnover, nearly 80% of our crew returns from one year to the next. Those that don't are usually young kids who have just graduated from college and only wanted to work one ski season at a resort before plunging themselves into the corporate world.
We get a lot of our new applicants from resort job fairs. As long as they have the basic prerequisites and a good attitude, we can train them to be good snowcat operators.
The typical new Cat driver begins their season under a 90-day probation period while we watch how well they pick up the complexities of the job. If they make it past the 90 days, we'll usually promote them to a Level I Cat driver, where they'll stay for the rest of the winter. As they return each year, they gather more skills and are promoted to higher levels until ultimately they reach the pinnacle of success - a Level V Cat driver.
In the beginning, we send the inexperienced employees out with the more experienced Cat drivers. As they begin to sharpen their skills and accumulate experience, they're given their own crews to supervise and better equipment to use. Cat drivers who have been with the ski resort for a number of years enjoy the best shifts and brand new Cats every year. When they reach the top of the heap, they're given more challenging assignments like sculpting terrain parks and operating Winch Cats.
Many runs at the resort are so steep that even a 10-ton snowcat balances precariously on black diamond runs unless they are somehow secured in place. Winch Cats are special snowcats outfitted with a 5-ton winch on the back. When a black diamond run needs to be groomed, the Winch Cat operator will attach the end of a retractable, 3000 foot steel cable to a pine tree, another snowcat or some other immovable object while he slowly lowers it down the hill. To come back up the slope, the operator reels in the cable and the Cat ascends the run.
At the end of the operators' shift, they'll park the Cat in a designated area away from the general public, clean off the snow and ice, re-fuel it and record its location into a central log book. Each operator will also report to the grooming office which runs they groomed so that new grooming reports can be distributed to guests at 8:00 in the morning.
Unlike many other ski resort jobs, finding a way to stay employed throughout the rest of the year is tough - the resort only needs about 12-15 heavy equipment operators during the summer. They help other crews to maintain the mountain, clear trails and assist with re-vegetation efforts. Getting a Cat operator job in the southern hemisphere is even more difficult. For instance, in Australia, there are only 7 resorts that hire snowcat operators and most of those positions are locked up by returning employees. The ski area where I worked, Falls Church, only hired 12 operators to run 9 snowcats.
At the end of the season, we find some pretty unique ways to have fun. Each year, one American resort will sponsor an annual Snowcat Rodeo. Snowcat rodeos give operators from all over the country an opportunity to try out some of the latest equipment. But the high point of the rodeo is the "athletic" events. Operators are pitted against each other as they negotiate tricky obstacle courses, trying to corral a beach ball into a hole using the blade of their snowcat.
I definitely don't have a run of the mill job. I enjoy moonlit nights cruising around the mountain in what amounts to a chair sitting over a huge diesel engine. Settling into my Recaro seats with the music blaring out of my Alpine stereo system, I can't imagine anything else I'd rather do.