All in a Groomer’s Day’s Work

By 
Eleanor Guerrero
CCN Senior Reporter
Thursday, February 18, 2021
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Photos by Hunter Graham
Huge drifts keep groomers busy on the high mountain roads after recent heavy snowfalls.

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Graham’s ride: The Yellowstone Snowmobilers’ Club Sno-Cat.

 

In Montana, it is a different way of life. When it comes to mountain dwellers, people are used to heavy snow, blinding winds and even driving when others would hide indoors. Not to mention the temps that fall below in double digits like this past entire week reaching over -20 degrees and an additional 10-20 minus degrees for wind chill. People here shake their head in disbelief when they hear about 6 inches “paralyzing the South or the Northeast” such as the latest storms sweeping the country. In fact, people here are upset when it doesn’t snow enough. Especially in the West, snow is recreation, water, life. 

Hunter Graham, a professional mountain snow groomer, knows only too well about extreme snowfalls, especially with the first big storm of this season. His territory is in the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains. He grooms on most of the forest service roads surrounding Cooke City as well as the 10-mile section of highway, east of Cooke City, that is closed in winter. 

Graham, who uses a Sno-Cat, remarked, “Epic Snow this week! Took me 8 hours to groom 50 miles!” He goes to work when most are coming home, on Sunday evening, Feb. 7. He shared his routine. “ I usually start grooming around when it gets dark. That way any snowmobilers are mostly off the mountain when I’m up there. Avalanche danger here was recently raised to ‘high’ as our storm total was nearly 4 feet up high since Wednesday!”

He explains that in the winter, many roads become recreational “trails.” “Well the roads are considered snowmobile ‘trails’ in winter,” said Graham. “There are no ‘runs’ per se. The groomed roads provide access to backcountry riding. There’s no ski area or course or designated runs, just forest service land you can ride on, or Wilderness you can ski into…”

He modestly says “Nothing super dangerous while grooming except for avalanches in a few spots and soft edges on the trails that the Cat could potentially slide down. Temp last night fluctuated between 7 and 10 above. Warmer when it was snowing hard a couple days ago!”

Not too dangerous! That seems like an understatement as he then admitted, “Some of the edges are very steep. The tracks overhang them by a foot sometimes! Would be an evening ruined if the cat slid off the mountain!”

Asked how it could be warmer up on the mountain when it was minus 8 or more on West Bench he replied, “Not sure exactly how the temp thing works, but we have been warmer than anywhere below us. It can definitely be warmer when it’s snowing hard than when skies are clear though. I guess the clouds insulate?” 

Graham was running the one Cat employed for this task. It is funded by the upper Yellowstone Snowmobile Club. “It’s a pretty sophisticated machine—very warm, lots of controls. I’m one of 4 groomer operators that rotate shifts. We groom every night if it’s snowing. I don’t bring coffee, because it’ll keep me awake even after I get home and just want to sleep. I usually bring some kind of dinner, snacks stuff, mostly. There is a radio in the Cat that I can contact Search and Rescue if necessary. I carry avalanche gear and a GPS communicator and a big first aid kit.”

Fortunately, he says, “I haven’t had to use any of them yet. This is only my second year, I haven’t had any incidents yet!”

Let’s hope for Graham that it is a smooth ride all winter as he caters to Montanans, the people of the mountain snows. 

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