By Amiee White Beazley | November 23, 2015 | Culture
The mountain is alight as a new generation of groomers prep and pamper the trails they love so much.
Princes of darkness: Every night, from dusk ’til dawn, Aspen Mountain’s exclusive team of ski-bum royalty traverses the slopes of their beloved Ajax, trimming the edges and smoothing the corners, to have it looking pristine by morning.
It’s a winter evening, mid-February. A light snow is falling. The Silver Queen Gondola sits dormant. Buckets hang like a set of dim lights on a wire gathering white dust. But on the mountain, there is a flurry of activity—hidden activity, if not for the lights glowing like planets in orbit against the blackness of night. Here, when the lifts close, Aspen Mountain groomers go to work, laying corduroy 16 hours a night, covering more than 40 miles of trail.
I wait as a Prinoth “Bison 350” snowcat lumbers toward me down Little Nell run, the same slope where fur-clad skiers had power-wedged their way to après-ski just hours before. It would be an intimidating approach—this 10-ton black and gray machine, the blinding headlamps, the growl of the engine—if it were not for a young man waving from inside the cabin.
The cat makes a precise turnaround, blade in front, tiller on the back, all power and torque, arriving with elegant muscle as it settles into its stop. The young man jumps out.
“Are you here for me?” He is smiling, earnest, and not at all annoyed by the prospect of me joining him for a grooming tour of Aspen Mountain, a guided nighttime excursion arranged by The Little Nell. Three nights a week, Aspen groomers bring two guests from Aspen Skiing Company properties—The Little Nell, Residences at The Little Nell, and The Limelight Hotel—on a grooming tour, showing them just what it takes to lay a flawless groom. Our tour will inevitably cut into his night’s precise schedule on the mountain, perhaps placing in jeopardy the perfection of the tracks he grooms down the celebrity face of Aspen’s crown jewel.
We hop into the idling cat. It’s warm inside, and I’m told to strap on my seat belt. Within moments we’re almost vertical, making our way back up the slope from which the cat came, cutting through the darkness with the machine’s powerful lamps, the controls like joysticks, the dashboard a collection of multicolored lights, the front window a barrier to the cold, a brace for legs when my driver eventually shows me how they groom the steep stuff. There is no one else on the mountain tonight except the wild animals that live here, as evidenced by the patterns of their tracks across already-groomed slopes, and the rest of the crew of groomers, who work every night to bring Aspen Mountain back to corduroyed perfection by morning.
My driver is Brian Kiss, age 21, terrain park rider turned freeskier. He skied 160 days last season, a winter and spring when the snow left much to be desired. Five days a week, Kiss grooms Aspen Mountain on the swing shift from 4 pm to midnight. He’s in bed by 2 am, then up for first chair. No friends—nor sleep—on a powder day.
People lament the wilting of hard-core ski culture in Aspen, but Kiss is one of a young generation of ski bums proving those death-knell prophecies wrong. He came to Aspen in the fall of 2014 with two childhood friends for a job with the Snowmass parks department, doing hand work, painting, raking, and maintenance. He loved being on the hill all day, but when a rare vacancy with the prestigious Aspen Mountain grooming crew opened up, he threw his hat in the ring. “I wanted this job really bad,” he says, “because every day is free to ski.”
Dedicated groomers, like 21-year-old Brian Kiss, comb the mountain in their snowcats all night, every night (and after skiing all day), to prepare Aspen Mountain’s freshly cut morning corduroy.
After a week and a half of ride-alongs, Kiss joined the swing shift. Every night takes him to a different part of the mountain, each with its own set of challenges. Some slopes have 35- to 50-degree aspects, making each pass a balancing act and forcing Kiss to plant his feet against the glass windshield to stop himself from falling forward.
Most of the guys he works with—and they are all guys—are skiers or snowboarders as committed as he, which doesn’t surprise him. It’s the unique perspective of a skier, Kiss explains, that provides the necessary attention and respect for the grooming process and the desire to get it right. “Skiing is such a vision-related type of thing,” he says. “You watch yourself in your head first—see it, plan it out, commit to it, and do it. As a groomer, when you’re skiing, you’re seeing all the stuff you did right or missed [the night before]. You get a different perspective, and it makes you a better groomer.”
After his shift, Kiss heads home, waxes his 185 cm Atomic Bent Chetlers, preps peanut butter sandwiches, packs his camera, and catches a few hours of sleep before driving his Subaru wagon back to the mountain in the morning. “If I can park at 1A, that’s the dream right there—boom. Hit the lift.” After that, it’s every man for himself. When the ski day is over, work begins. At the beginning of each shift, Kiss and the other cat operators wait atop the mountain until they get the call from Aspen Patrol that the trails have been swept.
“Being up on the mountain all the time means everything,” he says. “It’s such a peaceful experience. It might be snowing all night, and I’ll watch the snow build up and know what it will be like the next day when the mountain opens. Thoughts of skiing on the runs I’m grooming make the night go by quickly.”
As temps dip into single digits, Kiss is cozy in his cabin, fluid with the controls, Wu-Tang Clan or Metallica playing on the sound system. Most nights he takes a moment to watch the sun set from the top of Ruthie’s Run, at close to 11,000 feet.
“The sunsets that you see every night, they’re purple and red all the way down to Glenwood,” he says. “We show up right at the perfect time. The whole view off the back is bright red, and it’s awesome.”
PhotograPhy by scott markewitz/asPen snowmass; ©ChipKalback.com (snowcat)