Best Job Ever

Life behind the joystick of a snowcat

By Devon O'Neil November 28, 2022 Published in the Winter/Spring 2023 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

The life of a snowcat operator is not for everyone. But those who love it really love it. Stephen Becht fits the latter description. Becht grew up in the flatlands of Carmel, Indiana. He started driving excavators as a teenager and ran his own landscaping business in high school. Now in his early 30s, Becht has spent a decade on Vail’s 40-person cat crew and is one of the group’s most seasoned, and respected, members and mentors. In April 2022, during a shift that ran from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m., I rode shotgun in Becht’s Prinoth Bison X snowcat for an hour. It was 16 degrees outside and 75 in the cab. As we motored uphill out of Lionshead, I recorded Becht detailing the craft’s finer points, including how a groomer earns a nickname, and what keeps him hooked. The following transcription is edited for clarity and brevity:

"I always loved the mountain—the scope of it, how big it is. I worked as a liftie for a year before joining the cat crew. Back then, jobs were hard to get. It was one of those things where somebody had to quit, get fired, or die. Usually we’ll meet at 3 o’clock in the shop yard and get our assignments for the night, then head out to start grooming once the ski patrol’s sweep is complete. A driver generally grooms about four to five runs a night. Some runs take 20 to 30 passes over two hours, while others take up to 80.

I never get bored, even though I’m out there alone for 8 hours or more. No matter how many times you’ve groomed a run, a bump’s not always going to be in the same spot, the terrain may be worked, dirt may be showing—each run looks different from the night before.

When we’re running at full tilt and all the machines are working, we have about 18 free groomers and six winches on the hill each night. The night shift runs the cats for eight hours, then we hand them off to our morning crew that grooms from 11 p.m. until the mountain opens at 9 a.m. So really the only time these machines are sitting is during the day when people are skiing. It takes a toll, big time.

You see foxes, the occasional moose crossing a trail, and coyotes. Sometimes you get lucky and see bears in the spring when they’re coming out of hibernation. The number one skill to have is an eye for detail. I’ve never hit a tree in 10 years. That’s how you get nicknames. We called one guy Zippy because he often left what we call zippers—basically a track mark or anything that’s not corduroy. It’s all in good fun though. You’ve got to have a thick skin if you’re on the cat crew. They’ll give you tough love, but it’s all about a positive end goal.

One of our old-school guys is named Jocko. We call him Grandpa. He is one of our crustier members, but also the first to help you out when you’re struggling and need some pointers. He’s keeping the old-school traditions alive—from patterns and the way we groom certain runs to secret stashes where we can get snow.

We have a handful of non-skiers on the crew, but I’d say 70 percent of the crew skis regularly. We have a contest to see who can get the most days. Right now, Paul Painter, a pack-grooming specialist and one of our acre monsters, is in the lead with more than 100 days, but a few rookies are trying to catch him. We do want the crew to get out; it helps morale and shows people how their runs ended up.

Cat driver Jim Groebe at work near Avanti

Pepi’s Face above Vail Village is probably my favorite run to groom. We do it with winch cats, which keeps you on your toes, and it’s also a billboard for our product. We’re the flagship, and we stress that to our crew. When people come and ski Vail, they’re going to judge it based on what we put down. But we can only control so much when it comes to Mother Nature.

You never know what you’re going to get each night. It’s challenging, it’s frustrating, but it’s also rewarding. Taking a run that’s totally beaten up and doesn’t have a single flat surface to it, then working on it for a few hours and getting a nice bark-to-bark corduroy, that’s what we strive for. Seeing a couple hundred people skiing and enjoying your run the next morning is rewarding.

When I first started this job, I figured it was just something to do before I joined the real world. But as I’ve progressed, I’ve seen it more and more as a forever-type job for me. Groomers are kind of the unsung heroes of the mountain. A lot of us are introverted and don’t want to be direct guest-facing. We come out at night, and under the cover of darkness we put the mountain back together.”

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