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Grooming: Making Ice Nice

by Bruce Adelsman
January 28, 2005

Ski trail grooming is never an easy job.  It generally involves long, odd hours and unpleasant operating conditions (cold, noisy, fumes, etc.) and accommodating the different tastes of skiers who have different opinions on what is "good skiing" trail conditions.  And for a groomer, much of the product is out of their control: Mother Nature supplies the snow and weather conditions. Anyone who has tried their hand at grooming eventually realizes it is a continual learning process, refining and experimenting with techniques for each snow/weather combination.

Hard packed, icy trail conditions, especially thin snow, and with standard grooming equipment (snowmobile with a drag) are some of the most difficult to work with.  Given this scenario in the Twin Cities area this past week, we asked a few area grooming experts to share their accumulated knowledge on dealing with such conditions.

First, what is off the table:  Most area trails have conditions that are too thin to use a tiller or renovator to literally peel up a layer of snow and grind it up.  In addition, this type of equipment generally requires a Pisten Bully or other large and more importantly, very expensive, grooming machinery -- something many trail systems don't have access too.  Second, many of the area trail systems are groomed by employees that work normal business hours.  This usually eliminates the possibly of grooming late at night or in the early morning, times that might be ideal for some types of conditions.  This aspect alone is perhaps one of the biggest obstacles in achieving better trail conditions.

Ginzu Groomer in action at Maplelag (Photo: Jay Richards)
So what can be done with the current hard pack, icy trails?  Keep grooming:  that's the advice of many of the experts we talked to. "The ice/crust needs to be worked over and over to pulverize the ice to a softer substance. Sometimes it is better to just focus on say 5 km of a 15 km trail system, for example, and have the 5km as good as possible," says Jay Richards of Maplelag Resort. And if the trail system width permits, try pulling in some of the ungroomed snow from the edges to mix in.

Specialized equipment can also help.  Given a fairly level surface, ABR's Eric Anderson states  "regrooming with the modern type knife groomers (Ginzu Groomers or new G2 Tidd Tech) can then add a bit of texture (and bite) for the skate skiers." At the Woodland trails in Elk River, Dave Anderson uses a home-made piece of equipment:  a six foot wide section of steel meshing with end wires bent to point down, forming teeth to dig into the surface.

One other tip Jay Richards adds: "With colder temperatures during icy conditions: If possible, grooming should occur in the morning so the surface that is conditioned can stay "loose". Grooming in the evening allows cold temperatures to set the trail back up to hardpack/icy."

Finally, all of the groomers we spoke with recommended prevention as the best solution.  On warm days, the trail systems need to be groomed smooth, including the classical tracks, just as the temperatures begin to drop below freezing.  Groom too early and you'll generate hard pack; groom too late and you'll have rutted conditions. In addition, groomers can use a little "snow conservation" effort to help make the trail conditions more consistent. "We don't groom immediately when we get wet snow; we don't groom until the day after, but we absolutely need to after that.", Dave Anderson explained.  By not heavily grooming during the warmer conditions, the snow is not packed as densely.  Another technique that some larger trail systems use is a bit of "crop rotation", where the groomer will monitor the weather reports and if it appears there will be a bad stretch of warm weather, may put some trail segments out of use during that stretch.

For now, Twin Cities skiers will have to wait for their local groomers as they slowly transform the trail or seek out the locations with good conditions.

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