Saturday, January 5, 2013

On the night side of Heavenly Mountain Resort

originally appeared in The Sacramento Bee:

An incoming blizzard makes a dark line that billows on the horizon as the sun sets. Flags drooping on poles begin to lift and flap.

In a room that's a nerve center for Heavenly Mountain Resort on Lake Tahoe's South Shore, a dispatch officer scribbles on a status board – rising gusts mean the speed of a gondola taking the last skiers off the hill has to be reduced from 4.2 meters per second to a safer 3.5.

It's late afternoon, but the day is just beginning for a small army of personnel who will work throughout the night, readying the mountain for the next day's onslaught of eager skiers and snowboarders.

In the pump house at the resort's California Lodge, the program director scans a Dell monitor displaying readouts from various sensors on the hill.

It's 28 degrees on the summit, 45 at the base, and falling quickly. Plus 41 percent humidity. We should really be able to blow tonight. The program director is a 25-year veteran of snowmaking.

In his profession, "blowing it" equals success. Snow-making is one of many operations largely unknown and unseen by the customers that must be pulled off by sunrise to allow maximum recreation to proceed.

Since this resort opened as Bijou Skyway Park 65 years ago, Heavenly has had six owners. Vail Resorts acquired it in 2002, and in addition to acreage, permits, lifts and lodges, Vail bought the services of a cadre of experienced staff, people determined to make the place run well. This includes the night crews who labor diligently in the darkness, prepping the place for the 14,000 customers who can visit on a peak day.

Heavenly's nocturnal regimen isn't unique among Tahoe resorts, but it is one of the most complex, in part because of the immense property. The resort, which straddles the California- Nevada border, sprawls 8 miles across and 5.5 miles from top to bottom. On it, four base lodges and six midmountain lodges must be resupplied, lift maintenance performed, and snow produced, leveled and groomed.

Heavenly employs around 1,500 people in winter. About 12 percent turn out for night duty, which can resemble a well-planned military operation.

But where the military relies on a solid chain of command and strict discipline, a resort has to run more on inspirational leadership and a tone of friendly cooperation. At least there's no live fire to worry about; well, not until dawn anyway, when the ski patrol will throw hand charges and fire Avalauncher rockets to loosen snow loads and achieve slope stability before the runs open.

The overnight shift

Back on the mountain, with light fading, the patrol sweeps across the mountain to search for lost skiers. Members yank out marker poles and roll up fencing to clear the way for groomers. Crews connect hoses to deliver air and water to the snow guns.
At 5 p.m., the groomers meet to concoct a plan and warm up the diesel snowcats. These powerful machines have a scooping and leveling blade up front and a smoothing tiller in back – they resemble giant pieces of farm equipment.

Meanwhile, lodge supply trucks already are rolling from Heavenly's warehouse in Stateline, Nev. Restaurant resupply might not seem dramatic – until you add in miles of travel up a frozen mountain.

The night crew halts a box truck at the base of the tram on the California side and slides pallets and rolls kegs onto the tram car. These goods have already been logically sorted and shrink-wrapped at the warehouse; each of the midmountain lodges has a unique menu of needs, such as exotic burgers and 97 types of brew for the new Booyah's bistro at Lakeview Lodge.

As the tram rises, swaying through the blackness (lights are switched off due to Tahoe light pollution rules), night workers bake goods and smoke meats at Tamarack, a midmountain lodge on the Nevada side. Custodians clean tables, floors, windows and bathrooms, and bag trash and recyclables for the trip back down.

The director of mountain dining, in his 11th year, commands a force of 380 employees, two-thirds of them new hires. About 70 are from Latin America, he says, young students who come north to perfect their English and have some fun.

Actually, it's no problem filling our night crews, he says. They can ski and ride all day to their heart's content, then just work a shift from 4 p.m. to midnight.

By 8 p.m., moaning winds twirl flurries of snow around the resupply workers. Despite the yeti howl of the snowguns and the bellow from the big groomers that roam higher on the slopes, this mountain at night still radiates a giant's brooding tranquility.

Red, blue and white lights materialize out of the gloom. A snowmobile zooms along to check on the snow squirting out of the regular guns and the fan guns. Sometimes the staff just watches the crystals bounce off his sleeve, sometimes they'll drag the toe of their boot across the ground, studying the wake it ploughs. The staff stops at one computerized fan gun to read its LCD screen, and pronounces the settings perfect.

One of the managers runs on to the East Peak plant, where huge pumps send air and massive turbines squirt water (at a phenomenal 775 pounds per square inch) into lines that traverse the mountain for miles to reach the guns.

According to one plant operator, in his 13th season, says, Of all jobs I've had, this one I like best. It's kind of God-like to make snow. Yet you can't ever relax. There's always a bunch of critical things to keep your eye on.

In a season's first months, Heavenly produces snow even amid blizzards, since deep coverage and an early start are key to the resort's success. It's been policy for more than two decades, to help contend with periods of drought and now the threat of climate change.

Still, making snow is one thing. Making it skiable is another. Enter the night groomers. A fleet of 16 grooming snowcats includes four Prinoth Beasts, each with a 23-foot-wide blade shoved along by broad treads powered by a 500-horsepower diesel, and a stack of mounted headlamps bright enough to light a stadium.

In the cab of the leading Prinoth is a lean young man of 30, but already a grooming supervisor. He was drafted by the U.S. ski team coach to groom runs for the most recent Olympics and World Cup events.

My job is the greatest, he exclaims. I love being able to play at night on the mountain with this big expensive toy.

It's 27 degrees outside, but a cozy 73 within the heated cab. Just past the windshield, the blizzard unleashes its fury. Snow pours out of the blackness as 50-mph gusts shriek across the summit. He cups the machine's two tread control levers in his left hand, the blade and tiller joystick in his right. The groomer powers uphill at 4 mph, tilling the slope into perfect corduroy.

The quality of a run is your score card, he says. Skiers might not know where it comes from, but it's your signature, and you take pride in it.

Ordinarily, one pass will do it. Around 1 a.m., his crew jumps from the cabs to let the next group take over. This second team will work until dawn. We get the sunset, they get the sunrise, he says.

Another winter day

Pearly light does eventually seep from the east. The storm has grown muted. Resort mechanics examine the cables and lifts. "Lifties" arrive, shovel and sculpt their lanes, check equipment controls. They phone laconic reports down to dispatch, the resort nerve center, which has reawakened.
By 7 a.m., ski patrollers begin to filter into base shacks. If the avalanche risk were higher, senior members would arrive sooner, to design a plan to bomb the slopes. Their shack at the California Lodge is a narrow space bordered with lockers of green metal mesh, so gear can dry. Even so, a musty tang of old sweat hovers.

Duty and conditions bulletin boards are scanned by all who enter. Fit, weathered men and a pair of women fling greetings, jokes, insults and even a few boots around the soon-crowded chamber. After red equipment vests emblazoned with white crosses are zipped up on all of them, the pandemonium ebbs.

After briefings about the California and Nevada sides, the director takes the floor. He's another trim and crew-cut man, a veteran of 22 years of patrol at Heavenly. He comments on snow-making and grooming, then warns the patrollers to keep themselves safe so that they can help others.

Yesterday a patroller caught an edge, went down and whacked his head on upper Orion, he says. He wore a helmet and was able to jump right up, but that can happen to the best of us. I want you to all act like Boy Scouts out there. Which means, be prepared. That's all I've got.

They troop onto the tram, ride up, then ski down to a broad gully, where snowmobiles roar out of a gray cloud of falling powder. Patrollers jump on the back seats and others grab tow lines so they can scoot along behind the machines like water skiers.

In minutes, they disperse. They cruise every slope where skiers will go, make a final check of safety at the lifts and emergency helicopter landing zones, mark obstacles with wands and unroll fencing. Then they staff the mountain's four rescue stations and await the day's challenges.

Finally, bullwheels spin, the chairlifts rise, and hooting customers fan out across the slopes, darting in and out of trees, delighted to make fresh tracks on groomed runs frosted with a foot-deep meringue of fresh powder.

In the highest patrol shack, at the top of the Sky Express chair, the supervisor wears a smile of satisfaction. His mountain is ready. He works as a wilderness ranger for the Forest Service in the summer and has put in 18 seasons of patrol at Heavenly.

I keep returning here because of the camaraderie, he says. I think the teamwork in this place is just incredible.