The fate of snow lies in front of me.
Feathery flakes blow all around us, but where they fall makes all the difference. The snow on my right will one day melt and flow downward, into creeks, streams, rivers, and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. The drops on the left will one day pour into the great Pacific.
We are driving right up North America’s Continental Divide, the border of two disparate watersheds high in the Canadian Rockies. It is only 7 p.m. but it is dark as midnight. Only a single blinding beam lights up the patch of snow before me, as if I’m studying a sample of mountain under a microscope.
I am riding shotgun in a snowcat—a bulky machine that looks like some Star Wars cruiser but moves slower than a cow. It’s well below zero outside, but the inside heater is so strong, I take off my coat and begin to nod off. The seats are large and cushioned, and the radio plays the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.” The music is fast and punk, but the lyrics are soporific and I do actually feel sedated. Exhausted from a full day skiing at Sunshine Village, my eyelids close and I drift off like a baby in a car seat.
Bammer is driving. He’s been driving snowcats for the past ten years, up and down the slopes into the night, grooming the day’s used snow into a network of fresh white runs for tomorrow’s eager skiers.
Bammer has a real name but nobody knows it. I’ve already asked around—Banff is a small town—but Bammer has always been Bammer, a nickname that comes from the way he skies: without fear or stopping, simply attacking any and every slope in his way.
I wake up to the sound of ice scratching. With practiced hands, Bammer drops the giant grated shovel in front of us, scraping away the messy top layer and pushing tons of snow aside. Behind us, the trailer spreads this excess snow, then rakes it into rippled stripes. The lined white pattern reminds me of my mother frosting cakes with a knife—smoother and smoother until only the finest lines are visible.
“To be a groomer you must be patient,” Bammer explains. “You have to keep a pace—No rushing.” Bammer works carefully, adjusting his controls with both hands while he studies the rectangle in front of us.
“People who play video games catch on very quickly,” he adds. In this job, eye-hand coordination is everything. Cat drivers and snow groomers are both enviable jobs but not everyone can hack it. Four times a week, Bammer works a 10-hour shift, from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. Most of his time is spent alone, in his cab, driving miles and miles up and down the slopes, laying out a perfect snow surface for the next day’s fun.
The lined furrows are called “corduroy” because the groomed snow looks just like the fabric of the same name. A good groomer turns a messy, heavily skied slope into a smooth and even ski surface.
“We can take a bumpy no-go land and make it smooth,” Bammer waves his hand in front of him.
“I am a snow artist, really. I sculpt snow—I build things for people.” Near the top of the mountain, Bammer shows me his “snow farm”: long rows of snow fences used to capture the extra snow to use later when and where he needs it. With his tractor shovel, he takes snow from the drifting piles and pushes it out to fill holes or even the slope.
“Zoom the groom,” is what they call it in ski slang. Like a lawn mower cutting a yard in strips, Bammer erases the side of the mountain one long row at a time, rubbing out all of the ski tracks that I spent the day making.
We finally reach the top of Lookout Mountain, which, at nearly 9,000 feet high, offers stellar views of the Rockies on all sides. But now it is night and all I see is the warning sign and barred entrance to Delirium Dive, one of the steeper and more insane ski runs at Sunshine Village. Here is a trail that favors double black diamond daredevils.
With the craft and care of a gentle farmer, Bammer manipulates the shapeless snow into ramps and platforms, secretly pleasing tomorrow’s skiers.
“Let’s give them something to work with,” he says, dumping another load beneath the chairlift access point where the morning’s staff will help skiers off the chair.
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Bammer turns the cat around and begins the long descent back down the Continental Divide, widening the fresh clean stripe of snow he just created. The grater sends chunks of snow rolling downhill, like cartoon snowballs that get bigger and bigger as they tumble downward.
He’s always looking for wildlife—at night, the slopes come alive. “I see ptarmigan and snowshoe hares all the time. Sometimes bobcat, and lynx, or moose and pine martens. Once I saw a wolf.”
I turn around in my seat and look back up at the mountain we’ve just descended. Bammer’s work is exact, his corduroy unwavering. I am watching a perfectionist at work.
“After I’m done, I look at my work and I ask myself, ‘Would I ski that?’ and most times I would,” he admits. “If I wouldn’t ski it, then I have to do it over.”
Bammer drops me off at the bottom of the slope and I open the door of the snowcat. The cold night air hits my face. I step out and sink my boots into the freshly groomed snow, then offer a single wave goodbye as the machine heads back up the mountain, ten feet to the right of the Continental Divide.
Tomorrow morning, first thing, I will lay tracks in Bammer’s corduroy.