INVISIBLE ARMIES


Words by Matt Coté

When I was a kid, my dad was the general manager of a small, weekend-only ski hill in southeastern Quebec. It was tiny enough that all its staff had to do a bit of everything. For my old man, that meant taking shifts driving the snow cat after all his other work was done for the day. He was really busy back then, which meant jumping in his cab after dinner to watch him push snow around was some of the only time I got with him. And some of the best. To this day, the low hum of diesel on a cold night is a soothing sound to me.


Night rider. Photo by Andrew Strain

I got to ski the crap out of his grooming in those years. That’s the privilege of being young and having a father who runs a ski hill: it feels like he’s doing it just for you. He made sure I knew he wasn’t though, and that was the greater lesson of those times. To the untrained eye he was just tilling weeks-old snow, but I learned he was actually engaged in the world’s most impossible task: trying to make everybody happy.

Especially in the East, where it’s all piste, grooming is everything. That means that, on those rare powder days, the groomer dictates how much powder you get just by leaving it alone. Most Easterners love tearing into fresh corduroy more than anything else, but some love the soft stuff, too. And if you’re aiming to please hundreds of people, that’s a tough balancing act.

And then there were the times it didn’t snow at all, when the job was even harder. In those moments of scarcity my dad taught me you have to save the wind drifts on the side of the trails as reserves for the spring; all the annoying snow fences in the runs serve to catch and “farm” snow to redistribute at night; and some parts of the mountain can’t be tilled because there’s too much rock, so you have to dress those spots up creatively.

But the biggest thing I learned is that being in the business of making people happy is maybe as tough as it gets. And that is—enduringly—the ski business.

It takes invisible armies of people to deliver us the experiences we get to have on these snowy lumps of earth. Whether it’s grooming runs cut out of hardwood forests, or doing avalanche control on terrifying alpine peaks, the production of skiing involves taming one of the wildest environments there is. And the only thing more loaded than that is skiers’ expectations.

We often treat ski hills like galleries that should be curated to perfection for the prices we pay. The trick is, no amount of money makes a mountain not a mountain. But the crew of millwrights fixing the gondola at all hours of the night does make sure we almost never miss a day. And the guest services person insisting we all sign our waivers ensures some lawsuit-happy yuppy doesn’t ruin the whole thing for everybody. And the safety team on standby for rescue lets us throw down harder than we ever otherwise would.

There are leagues of people working unseen in the background at our ski hills, and most of them will never get thanked or acknowledged. But that’s fine. The majority don’t want or need that—they’re doing it because they love it. Still, every now and then, it’s good to appreciate the natural forces those stalwart creatures manage on our behalf. Not the least of which could be a kid in a snowcat, pleading, “Please, Dad, don’t groom over this spot, there’s a good kicker in it.”

Share this