While downhill skiers, snowboarders, cross-country skiers, snowmobilers, and other snow lovers are dreaming corduroy visions in their Valley beds, groomers are out from sunset to sunrise, when conditions permit, to craft those satiny pathways to adventure. 

Words by Marty Basch, Photography by Wiseguy Creative

Under the cover of darkness, they often work in brutal cold. The job can be lonely but opens up a world of splendid isolation in the forests where deer, moose, and more do roam. 

These smooth operators pull long hours at an often-thankless task and pilot a warm roving man cave atop a multi-ton machine with a blade out front, a tiller at the rear, and tank-like treads. With a joystick and their favorite tunes playing if they choose, they navigate up and down steep mountain terrain, deep into the woods, and along winding maze-like pathways.

While downhill skiers, snowboarders, cross-country skiers, snowmobilers, and other snow lovers are dreaming corduroy visions in their Valley beds, groomers are out from sunset to sunrise, when conditions permit, to craft those satiny pathways to adventure. 

snow grooming close-up

“It’s a bit of art and science,” said Cranmore’s grooming supervisor Kevin Hickey, a man with 23 years of experience, starting with the second shift as a Kennett High School senior so he could go to class in the morning. He now oversees a staff of about 15 with two Pisten Bully 600 (one diesel-electric, one winch) and two Prinoth Bisons. “You can go anywhere in one of those machines,” he said.

Talk to a groomer about their métier, and patterns appear. Experience is the key to efficiency. Have a plan so you don’t go over the same ground twice. Be sure to sample your finished product. 

They groom when temps drop below freezing. Part of basic alpine grooming is putting back uphill the snow that skiers and gravity push downhill.

grooming cranmore

Sunsets and sunrises are pristine and chance wildlife encounters memorable. “One of the coolest things is sunrise, the silent sparkle of winter,” said “Nordic” Nate Harvey, a Great Glen Trails (GGT) staple since 1997, with some 20 years of grooming management and 10 of hands-on experience.

XC grooming Great Glen Trails Gorham, NH

Getting stuck at zero dark thirty, removing downed trees, wind, frigid temps, and covering bare spots are some of the challenges. Safety is paramount. “You never really know what you’ll run into,” says Tim Kiesman, president of the Mountain Meadows Riders snowmobile club with about 12 years of grooming experience. “You should expect the worst and hope for the best.”

There are also pet peeves, such as people unknowingly walking on freshly groomed snow and leaving holes. But there’s really a big one. Don’t poach! “Poachers can come down, go around a corner and be right on us,” said King Pine’s Jake Jenkins, who along with Russ Ellis, have a combined 60 years of experience and are the heart of the ski area’s three-person grooming team with a Prinoth Bison and back-up for the ski area’s 17 trails. “We don’t expect anyone out there,” added Ellis. “We really don’t.”

Every operation has its nuances. The groomers know every rock and root. At Cranmore, they work two, eight-hour shifts with a midnight shift change. Cranmore has 172 acres of skiing when wide open, with each groomer doing some 25 to 35 acres in eight hours. The upper mountain is done first—with the beginner slopes, South Slope, tubing, and terrain parks completed after midnight.

snowmobile grooming north conway

Hickey’s craft has improved under the guidance of the late, legendary Olympic groomer Jim Mersereau, and his sons Josh and Johnny.“Jim instilled that nothing else matters. This is one of those places that gets in your blood,” says Hickey. He’s always ready to work and has missed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year holidays, as well as birthday parties with family and friends.

“I learn stuff every day. Every night is different from Thanksgiving to MLK weekend. Everything is changing. February vacation is the big show. You’ve got to get everything right, from snow depth to making sure the beginner trails are flat, to not too much pitch in the woods. Make sure it is safe. After February, it is like you mowing the lawn every night,” he says.

Poachers? All the time.  “I understand people want to get out, but it creates an unsafe situation,” he said. “At night, we can only see what our headlights give us. We have a winch cat, and that cable can snap.”

When the lifts close, the grooming begins at King Pine, from the hill’s dark backside to the front with its lights, the terrain park, and tubing lanes.  “The weather is always a challenge,” said Ellis. “If it’s raining, you have to wait until it’s over, let it drain, and then groom. When there’s a snowstorm, you have to groom with the storm.”

Added Jenkins: “You are just packing, not blading. Also, you have to know where you are on the trail or on the whole mountain because you don’t have a lot of visibility.”  The job can be thankless, but the pair get well-deserved kudos, along with a few knocks, at times.

“We don’t often see them because we’re working on the other side of the clock, but dedicated skiers know what you do, and they let you know,” said Jenkins.

Those wide wavy skate lanes and firm classical tracks for cross-country skiers are also the results of dedicated groomers. Using a Pisten Bully 400 and snowmobile with a Ginzugroomer attachment, the small GGT crew smooths some 25 kilometers of trails at the base of Mount Washington.

Great Glen Trails

Typically, the Auto Road is groomed first at day’s end so that the surface can set up overnight for SnowCoach rides to 4,000 feet. Then tubing is shown some love; around 4 a.m., the groomer sets tracks and polishes the skate lanes.

Temperature inversions and bare spots prove frustrating. Sometimes trees are cut so the snow falls on the trails, but that up-high openness means the sun’s intense at intersections of high use. To defend it, Great Glen blows snow on some sections, or trucks it in. Wind’s another hurdle. Snow fencing helps, but so does stockpiling it and then blading it out or moving it by hand.

“Everyone has a blue snow scoop to help,” said Harvey. Snow is frequently shoveled for events, races, and daily operations.

The groomers are making lanes about 14 to 18 feet wide, with classic tracks on both edges and a skate lane in the middle. Those tracks can’t be too close to the edge. They want to be efficient and not re-tracking themselves. “This really is a video game of Nordic Tetris,” he said. Plus, a role-playing game where Great Glen’s groomers not only groom, but provide the snow report or even teach a lesson.

King Pine grooming

Skiers aren’t the only winter lovers appreciative of those who only come out at night. Grooming makes snowmobile trails less rough and rutted and more enjoyable. The Mountain Meadows Riders snowmobile club, fueled by donations and volunteers, has about 350 to 450 members. It maintains about 70 miles of tracks from Madison to Conway, including pathways up to Cathedral Ledge, the popular Corridor 19, and Bypass Trail.

The club’s five-person volunteer crew works with a new Tucker 1100 trail groomer every day but Sunday, doing half the network one shift, and the remainder the next—usually from sunset to having them home by midnight, weather permitting.

“We try and split it up so that one guy has one shift a week. It makes it easy for everyone, especially with volunteers,” said Kiesman. Many snowmobile enthusiasts ride at night, and even though the tall machine with a 16-foot drag has bright lights, it can still startle unaware sledders around blind corners.

snowmobile grooming nh White Mountain Club

The club goes so far as to remind members on its trail map to keep their eyes open for groomers on the trails, reminding them the machines have right of way.  “For me, it’s been incident-free, but there have been some close calls—as it is with anything,” said Kiesman.

Snowmobile trails attract other users such as snowshoers, dog walkers, mushers, and fat-bikers. Courtesy and safety rule.

“As far as the club is concerned, they are all welcome on the trails,” he said. “We try to encourage multi-use trails where everyone can enjoy it.”

So thank a groomer, enjoy, and don’t poach.


Catch this article in the Winter 2022/23 printed edition of Mt Washington Valley Vibe available at any of these locations around the region!