The New Science of Snowmaking
Credit: Photograph by Cody Doucette
Later that night, I ride along with Jim Wieand in one of Sun Valley's new grooming tractors, powered by a 525-horsepower motor, wielding a 23-foot blade, and ­affectionately called "the Beast." Wieand has been a groomer here for more than 30 years and knows the mountain better than his own backyard. Nearly the entire grooming staff – two eight-hour shifts of seven guys operating seven tractors – are devoted skiers, and it shows. The conversation in their daily meeting sounds like a blend of ski-bum slang and heavy-machinery-operator jargon. Each run is discussed in detail, observations from the day's skiing are voiced, and solutions to problems are debated. One of the runs is "center high" and needs to be leveled; there are a few icy spots near that day's race course; some of the snow is getting hard and needs special care. Compliments are handed out to the groomers responsible for runs that skied particularly well that day.

Wieand and I head up the mountain. The cockpit of the Beast is half luxury car, half helicopter, and totally badass. It's equipped with climate control, a maxed-out stereo, a touchscreen computer, an operator's chair with hydraulic shocks, a joystick that controls the massive forward blade, and a console with buttons and switches. I'm surprised it doesn't have night vision.

"I like to listen to Pink Floyd when I'm up here," Wieand says with a chuckle, "especially when there's a big snowstorm." Most of the groomers, Wieand included, got into it because the hours let them ski all day, "and the sunsets from the top are pretty cool, too." As we crawl up the mountain, the tractor cuts the snow with its enormous blade, breaks it up like freshly turned soil through the tiller, and then folds three inches of soft powder back along the track before dropping the weighted rubber flap that smooths it into the famed corduroy.

"What we're really doing here is farming snow," Wieand says as he tweaks the blade slightly to the left.

The next morning dawns cold and clear, and I'm standing at the top of Bald Mountain staring down the gun barrel of Warm Springs, one of Sun Valley's best runs: 3,000 vertical feet of uninterrupted fall line covering a distance of more than two miles. Thanks to Wieand, the run is ballroom smooth. Skiing Warm Springs top to bottom, with that snow and grooming, is simply one of the most premium ski experiences available anywhere. Riding back up, the guy sitting next to me on the lift talks about a large storm front moving into the West, and local skiers are buzzing with anticipation about Old Man Winter finally showing up. "Pray for snow," he tells me with a wide smile as we get off, "but thank God for snowmaking."