How Our Groomers Do It

Doug McNair grooming at Tahoe XC. Photo by Tim Hauserman

All About The Grooming

At Tahoe XC, we pride ourselves on the friendly ambiance of the lodge and staff, many of whom have been working here for decades, but also … it’s all about the grooming. The actual skiing experience is created by five guys who take turns heading out in grooming machines to lay down the corduroy and set tracks that make skiers smile. The first and most important lesson to learn about grooming cross-country ski trails is that it’s not as easy as it looks.

Many of Tahoe XC’s grooming crew have been grooming these trails for decades. Doug McNair started grooming here in the 1980s when it was Tahoe Nordic Center. Ulf Grigoleit, who subs in when the others can’t make it, also groomed back in the Tahoe Nordic days. Michael Buss, Bob Wright, and Craig Smith have all been flowing over these trails for many years and even more kilometers. But even for pros like these, grooming is complicated.

"There's a Lot Going On."

As Bob Wright says, “There’s a lot going on.” First, you have to guide this large machine through a narrow pathway with little room for error. That is handled with two sticks in the left hand. Each stick controls the speed of an individual track. In the right hand is a joystick that controls the 12-way blade, eight tiller functions, and track speed. All this and they also have to frequently look back to make sure they are laying out a trail that is as pretty as they want it to be.

Tahoe XC groomer with lake view

Groomers As Weathermen

Aside from the skill needed to operate the machines, the groomers need to be weathermen when it comes to making the decision about when to groom. In general, if it is not snowing, the best conditions are created by heading out to groom as soon as the ski area closes at 5:00pm (when there aren’t any pesky siders on the trails). This creates a smooth trail that sets up nicely overnight. This is especially true for spring-like snow conditions, which, as we know in Tahoe, occur anytime there’s a week or two without snowfall.

If there is a storm predicted, the groomers may wait until first thing in the morning to groom. Fresh snow has its own grooming challenges. If it is deep, the groomers may have to go over it several times, and it still might be a bit soft for skate skiers. If it is snowing hard while they are grooming by the time they get back to the lodge it may have snowed several more inches and skiers might think the trails were never groomed.

  • Key Point for Skiers - Skiing on the trails after the evening groomers ave gone by creates soft tracks that freeze into ruts by morning. One skier skating on freshly groomed trail not only ruins the experience of all the skiers the next day, but can potentially create dangerous conditions as well. Please do not ski at Tahoe XC after 5:00pm.

Challenging Conditions Ahead

Finally, no matter how expert these guys are, sometimes they are beholden to the snow conditions that they are given. Picture this: High snow levels bring lots of rain, then follow it up with wet snow. When you head out onto that with your machine, it clogs up and drags mounds of snow along behind you. This leaves an uneven groomed surface. Other challenging conditions are when it is quite warm in the afternoon, but then the temperature drops rapidly. This leads to inconsistent snow conditions for grooming, making some trail sections perfectly groomed and others dotted with little balls of snow.

  • Key Point for Skiers On snowy days, expect the trails to be softer and keep your eyes out for grooming machines. These might be the perfect conditions to stride instead of skate.
Grooming deep snow at Tahoe XC

When to Groom, When to Groom

Sometimes, the grooming weatherman must confront the tough flip of the coin decision: What to do if the forecast calls for scattered showers with a 50% chance of snow up to 2 inches? If it’s not going to snow, it’s much better to groom in the evening, but if you groom in the evening and then it snows more than a dusting, it looks like it was never groomed at all. If you wait until morning and it doesn’t snow the groomed trail will not be near as nice as if you had groomed it in the evening.

Real Talk with Groomer Doug McNair

I spent an evening last spring in the machine with Doug McNair. Even though there appeared to be plenty of snow, he was using the blade frequently to pull in snow from the side of the trail towards the center. The reason: In a few weeks as the snow melted, he knew that bringing snow in now, could give us another week of skiing later. So he plans ahead, while also driving, tilling, and keeping vigilant for what is happening behind the machine on the trail.

“We try to groom with the last heat of the day to make perfect corduroy,” groomer Doug McNair says.

Doug McNair posing by grooming machine

“If the temps drop before we have completed the run, the tiller will chop it into popcorn-sized pieces. The worst condition is snow overnight with sunshine and warming temps in the morning. We need to be off the snow before it begins to warm, otherwise it turns to mash potatoes. This is when we get trenching, the technical term for snow sticking to the combing and shearing off the old snow below. Most nights we can compensate with adjustments to the tiller; however, there are so many snow conditions that every night we groom, adjustments have to be made anew, from powder to your waist to rain-soaked and ice. Luckily, we have the experience to deal with it all.”

Thank a Groomer

So, next time you ski along nicely grooming trails, be sure and give our groomers a well-deserved nod. They are doing their best to create a perfect surface for you to ski on.

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