The joys of corduroy: praise for groomers

  • Grooming machines makes possible cross-country ski days like the one above at Bretton Woods earlier this month. Tim Jones / Courtesy

For the Monitor
Saturday, January 21, 2017

Friends, let us stand today in the shadow of giants who roam the earth and give thanks. Their names are Pisten Bully, Prinoth, Bombardier, Tucker Snow Cat and Thiokol, and they deliver unto us skiable snow surfaces when Mother Nature won’t.

Seriously, where would we be this year without snow groomers? I can answer that in one word: hiking. Of course all that hiking would have to be done with snowshoes, MICROspikes and crampons.

Despite the late December storm, there has been very little lift-serviced skiing on natural snow this year. Glades skiing and backcountry skiing (where you climb up under your own power and ski down) started and then fizzled out in a series of meltdowns and refreezes that have left a bulletproof crust over much of New England – where there’s still any snow at all.

For the same reason, cross country skiing has been on groomed trails only for most of the season.

If you ask most skiers what makes their fun possible in a year like this, most would probably answer snowmaking. But without modern grooming equipment, snowmaking wouldn’t do skiers much good.

Can you imagine, for example, the carnage on a beginner trail covered with huge mounds of ungroomed, man-made snow? That’s not a pretty thought. Even expert skiers sometimes have trouble negotiating man-made snow before it’s groomed out. It takes a lot of finesse and diesel fuel to turn snowmaking “whales” into the smooth, consistent corduroy that we eastern skiers love to carve up, just like many happy people did this past MLK weekend.

Cross-country skiers are just as dependent on grooming. Without grooming there’d be no smooth, wide lanes for skate skiing, and even classic cross-country skiers wouldn’t be able to go as fast or as far if they had to break trail and make their own tracks all the time.

Even when you get a lot of natural snow (which is going to happen in February and March, right?) grooming compacts the snow and helps it last longer. Grooming also turns nasty stuff like rain crust into a wonderfully skiable surface.

Without grooming, we’d be crying this winter. As it is, we’ve been able to get out on skis and enjoy winter as it should be enjoyed – on both downhill and cross-country skis.

Last Saturday, my sweetheart “Em” and I found ourselves driving over Crawford Notch to meet someone at Bretton Woods Nordic Center. It was a something of a shock. On the east side of the notch where we live, there

was a foot or more of snow everywhere. On the west side, especially where the wind and sun had gone to work, the snowcover was patchy. The Bretton Woods Golf Course looked like one more warm spell would make it playable, at least to someone who knows nothing about golf.

But in the midst of all that brown grass, you could see these ribbons of white. And, about to disappear into the woods at the far end of the course, was a big, red grooming machine. What a welcome sight! There was also a smaller grooming machine being towed by a snowmobile working to buff up some of the trails that had been groomed the day before.

The temperature was hovering near zero, and that made it a perfect morning for cross-country skiing. So we bundled up with easy-to-shed layers and headed out.

Despite a recent melt-down, “wintry mix” and re-freeze, the trails were actually in very good shape. We could see where several skate skiers had gone before us, leaving their distinctive long, diagonal-stride tracks in the soft surface. The snow wasn’t deep enough to set tracks for classic skis, but we could still kick-and glide along as fast as we wanted to go. Below that soft surface was more crust and ice, which can be groomed and re-groomed if the top layer disappears.

One of the life-principles I live by is that ski conditions are almost always better than you think they are going to be. That was certainly true on this day. We could have turned around and gone home, but, instead, we got some fast, fun kilometers under our skis and had a wonderful morning outdoors under cold blue skies. All thanks to groomers.

Women’s winter workshops

Ladies, it’s winter workshop time again, and if you like the idea of learning new skills in a safe, supportive, fun, non-competitive environment, it’s time to sign up and make plans.

The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is offering a one-day BOW (Becoming an Outdoors Woman) workshop on February 25. This workshop allows women to experience ice-fishing, snowshoeing and tracking, winter outdoor survival, or “Shoe and Shoot” (woodland target shooting on snowshoes). Cost is $55 ($25 for ages 18-25). Application forms and brochures are published at nhbow.com. Be warned, these courses fill quickly.

The Grandmommy of all women’s winter workshops is the VOGA Doe Camp (voga.org/winter_doe_camp.htm) held each year at the Hulbert Outdoor Center in Fairlee, VT. The dates are March 3-5 this year. This is a three-day, two night event (you can come for only part of it) with four sessions, each offering 8-10 different classes to choose from. You can find a full class list and descriptions on the website.

Teaching classes (How to Pick, Pack, and Carry a Backpack; Advanced Snowshoe Techniques; Winter Camping) has allowed me to attend this event for the last six years, and I wouldn’t miss it. The women taking the classes are obviously having so much fun learning and the camaraderie the rest of the time is equally amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever heard more laughter than I did last year in our Advanced Snowshoe class, which we taught without a sign of snow on the ground.

Try it, I think you’ll like it. Women come from all over the country. Registration is on the website. Cost is $390 for the whole weekend (lodging, meals, courses), less if you commute or come for only part of the time. Mother/daughter and group (three or more) discounts are offered.