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Groomer enjoys solitude of the snow

Posted: Wednesday, January 17, 2001

LOOKOUT PASS, Idaho (AP) -- Mark Miller considers himself an artist. His canvas is snow, and his brush is an 8-ton tracked monster that he powers up and down the slopes of Lookout Mountain Ski Area each night that precedes a ski day.

''My art's on display every day,'' the 40-year-old slope groomer says. ''If I do a good job, my friends among the skiers and boarders compliment me. And I know that thousands of folks who drive by on the freeway see my work, too. You want it to look good.''

This winter job is just perfect for Miller, who describes himself as a burned-out cook.

A graduate of North Idaho College's culinary arts program, he worked in his trade for 26 years with stints that included Harrah's in Reno. He still does kitchen duty during the summer.

But commercial cooking is a high-turnover, high-stress job, Miller says. Here on the mountain, it's close to heaven.

He began at Lookout, on the Idaho-Montana border, three winters ago. There's no school for snow groomers so, after a quick briefing and a couple of hours riding with an experienced operator, he was on his own.

And that's one of the best parts of the job, he says.

''No one's looking over my shoulder. The mistakes I make digging holes, for instance, I can patch right up and no one's the wiser.''

A side benefit of his solitary nighttime patrol is the chance to observe wildlife. He said he's had frequent encounters with cougars, bears, wolves, coyotes, deer, elk, rabbits, even an occasional moose and lynx.

''They're used to the machine and aren't even spooked,'' he explains. ''Some animals run in front of the groomer, in and out of the headlights like they're playing a game.''

Miller's shift begins at 11 p.m. and concludes about 10 the next morning. He calculates that, during those hours, he drives his tracked rig about 80 miles on the 80 acres he grooms.

Miller's machine, a hulking 33-foot, 250-horsepower Italian-made Prinoth, is as close to an army tank as most civilians will ever get. It's raw power -- vital to claw up and down 34-degree slopes dragging a tiller and a vibrating smoothing board.

It consists of two round bars with teeth that aerate the top 3 inches of snow to create a powdery surface. It also compresses the snow so that melting is slowed or stopped.

The front of the machine is fitted with a scraper blade. Beyond the obvious use of filling holes and smoothing moguls, the blade acts as a brake when descending steep slopes.

As in any profession, there are subtleties and secrets. Miller explains that uphill packing produces a better finish than downhill packing. He says machine turns expose more snow to sun melt and are thus best done under trees or other places where skiers and boarders don't go.

Lookout manager Phil Edholm, a veteran of 28 years in the ski industry, says that grooming is nearly as old as the sport. At first, he says, skiers boot-packed their own slopes.

Then, farmers and ranchers, who opened areas beginning in the 1930s, pulled wooden rollers or culverts behind their work vehicles. After World War II, Army-surplus tracked machines called weasels clanked onto the slopes.

Today's up-to-date machines such as the Prinoth are nearly luxurious inside. They're heated, have padded seats and are quiet enough to hear the radio Miller packs with him to monitor weather reports. His groomer even has a steering wheel, a relatively modern replacement for the levers and bars that guided older machines.

He doesn't wander willy-nilly over the mountains. Instead, groomers follow schematic plans tailored to the terrain and the clientele their areas try to attract.

Lookout is a family area, relatively small and inexpensive. It thus caters to a large number of beginning and intermediate skiers and boarders.

And Miller is tuned in to Lookout's needs.

''The very last thing I do before I head home is go over and over the bunny hill. We want that to be as smooth as a baby's butt.''



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