A gorgeous sunset peeks through the clouds as the clock nears closing. At the Snow Bowl, straggling skiers march their way to their roof-racked cars, poles over their shoulders, planning a Friday pregame or a Subway stop after their long day on the slopes. As the parking lot starts to clear out and the lift chairs hang suspended in the air, Snow Bowl staff are able to call it a day, enthusiastic for the weekend splitboard festival ahead. For some staff, though, their day on the mountain is just getting started.
Aaron Paquette is a snow groomer at the Middlebury Snow Bowl. Even though you might not see him operating the lift or working at the lodge (or at least not on duty), he and his partner are two of the most important people on the entire mountain. Without them, no one would be able to enjoy the Bowl’s seventeen different trails.
Snow groomers are masters at their craft. Piloting extremely heavy and complex machinery, they carefully maneuver the iciest, steepest and most uneven terrain of the mountain to plow through moguls and snow clumps and leave behind the finest of lines in their wake, turning choppy slopes into hills of “corduroy.”
As the bright golden trees of the mountain start to dim, Aaron climbs up the tank-like tread of the vehicle and gets into his equivalent of a truck caddy, something his background as a trucker has prepared him for. I follow him inside, closing the door behind me to sit in the passenger seat of this beast of a machine. Despite its outward appearance, the inside is cozy and ergonomic, with windshield wipers that can swipe every which way and a backup camera with a crystal clear display.
It’s here that Aaron will spend anywhere from 8 to 12 hours to groom the entire mountain tonight. Pointing at the display with his other hand on the controller. “There's a sound that will ring once the machine notices I haven’t steered in a while. That’s when it's time to sip my coffee” he grins.
Within moments of climbing into the vehicle, the machine glides across the mountains layout, pushing snow in front, breaking it up in its teeth-spiked rotating tiller, and finally depositing it behind a wide, ribbed “skirt” that drags along the snow to turn the mountain into perfectly symmetrical lines, almost like a rake in a Japanese sand garden. Mountain Supervisor Ryan Mcnulty jokes to me on my first joyride in the other machine that “if you can mow a lawn, you can use a snow groomer,” but it seems like magic as I watch night fall and Aaron masterfully weaving onto every square foot of the mountain.
While sitting atop this machine is enjoyable, this job is definitely not all fun. Training for snow groomers is extensive due to the high level of skill needed to operate the machines, and it can be deadly if not taken seriously. I ask the mountain supervisor about the possible dangers of operating the snow groomers, and what riders of the mountain should know about how to stay safe around them.
“A lot of people don’t realize how stressful it can be as a groomer to deal with people skiing around you. We can have some pretty dangerous collisions with skiers, especially at night, and a lot of mountains around here have had problems,” he said. “I even tell my guys that if they’re making snow on the hill, they should tell the groomers that they are there. There was actually an accident this year on Jiminy Peak where a snowmaker was hit by a groomer and died.”
“We’re on snow and ice and skiing can be a dangerous sport. We're trying what we can to make sure no one gets hurt,” he said.
It's seven o'clock at night, three hours after the snow bowl has officially closed, and we’re the only ones on the mountain at this point. We saw a few skinners who made their way down the mountain at the start of the shift, but at this point, we’re surrounded by nothing but dark wood and our headlights.
“It can get a little lonely up here sometimes,” Aaron says. “Being alone up here, your mind can try and play tricks on you. But the tiredness comes in waves. It's usually the drive home that's the worst,” he chuckles.
Aaron has been a snow groomer for the past four years. He was born and raised in Addison County, and grew up skiing at the Snow Bowl. He was twenty years old when he married his wife and has three children, one of whom enjoys competitive ski racing.
“My dad always told me, never live your life without snow, and I took that advice” he tells me as he explains how his family’s favorite pastime is going skiing. As he says this, his phone pings and his dad texts him a photo of his different skis asking him about the conditions of the mountain, wondering, “Which one for tomorrow?”
As Aaron descends down the mountain’s steepest pitches towards the lodge, a now bright blimp of light through the trees, I realize that conquering these hills on skis or a snowboard is nothing compared to those who work while we rest to make this mountain accessible to everyone. “I would never want anyone to change the way they enjoy this mountain for our sake,” Aaron responds to my question about how to make their jobs easier.
At around 7:30pm, Aaron drops me off at the “Bully pen”, the warehouse where the older machine is stored. He agrees to a portrait and then climbs up into the machine, waving me off as he starts the climb back up Allen, his vehicle’s headlights surrounded by the dark mountain. Even though he’ll probably leave the mountain at around one in the morning, he’s excited to return the next day with his family to enjoy the fruits of his labor.