How do you make a ski jump?
BRATTLEBORO — Alan Robinson has been grooming snow his whole adult life.
The Wilmington native is the man doing that seemingly impossible job — driving up and down the shockingly steep Harris Hill ski jump — and getting the snow perfect for the group of national and international ski jumpers expected in Brattleboro this weekend for the annual Harris Hill Ski Jump.
Robinson is the head groomer at Mount Snow Resort, and he's on loan to the crew at Harris Hill for a couple of days to get the bottom three quarters of the jump ready for the competition.
Jason Evans, the major-domo of the unique ski hill facility, directs the crew that gets the hill ready. He has nothing but praise for Robinson.
"We couldn't do it without him," said Evans.
Robinson starts his machine, a Pisten Bully 600 winch cat, at the top of the jump. Far below him is the bottom of the jump and the parking lot that will hold thousands of spectators this Saturday and Sunday. Off to the side are the Retreat Meadows and the Connecticut River. Evans has already hitched the winch to the anchor but Robinson, a stickler for safety, gets out of the cab of the machine to double check.
Harris Hill organizers have to get a special state transportation permit to move the big groomer from West Dover to Brattleboro since it is so wide, and Tuesday was the day. Robinson was back Wednesday, making sure the snow cover on the jump is uniform and deep, spread evenly to the edges of the jump's sideboards. Jumpers, who are traveling at speeds of up to 70 miles an hour, need a predictable, even surface to land on.
Unlike ski trails, which Robinson constructs with a crown, the ski jump must be even, from edge to edge.
It's 36 degrees and foggy, but Robinson says the temperature just above freezing is making the snow nice and sticky — easy to pack and easy to move in with the heavily tracked machine. Sometimes, going up the steep slope, he doesn't even need the wire cable to pull the machine up.
The wire cable is like a giant tether, making sure the machine doesn't go tumbling down the hill, or it can pull it up the face of the jump.
Robinson is a perfectionist and highly observant of the undulating gradations of the white blanket beneath him.
The giant machine, which is named Mandy May, is a big red machine with a giant winch on top, almost like a claw. In the front is an articulated plow, in the back a tiller, which leaves the surface like corduroy. Robinson manipulates them easily.
The machine, during its trip on Route 9 from Mount Snow to Brattleboro, picked up some road dirt, and it's coming off in the pristine snow. Robinson said he would make sure to bury it.
And Robinson said he likes the blue-tinged snow the plow on the groomer is peeling off the giant pile — it has a chlorine-blue cast, because it is snow from the town of Brattleboro's municipal water supply, which is treated with chlorine. "We don't have that at Mount Snow," Robinson said.
The top of the hill was shrouded in fog late Tuesday afternoon, making it more difficult to see what Robinson was doing with his big machine. It's easier to see at night, he said, with the big lights on the groomer.
The plow creates giant round sausages of snow, and foot-wide snowballs break off and cascade down the steep face of the jump. All the time, Robinson is pushing snow to the edges, to fill in the gaps on the far edges.
Thursday morning brought a light coating of sticky wet snow, and Evans said his crew would remove all that snow by hand. "We don't want the snow. It changes the profile. It's not packed and we want a nice hard surface," Evans said, noting that the super-cold temperatures forecast for Thursday night and especially Friday night, when temperatures are forecast to go below zero, will be perfect for keeping the jump ready for the jumpers.
The spectators? Maybe a little less perfect for them, Evans admitted, although temperatures are expected to warm up Saturday afternoon and even more so on Sunday, the second day of competition.
Evans' crew will put the finishing touches on the upper portion of the ski jump — not reached by the heavy grooming machine — and spray water on it so that it's "like a block of ice," Evans said.
Robinson has worked for Mount Snow Resort for a total of 21 years, as well as five years at Stratton Mountain and Heavenly Ski Resort in California.
At Mount Snow, Robinson oversees a crew of about 10, but he's the only one to operate Mount Snow's "winch cat" groomer. At the ski area, it's used on the resort's extremely steep ski runs, which are anywhere from 45 to 60 degrees pitch. Unlike Harris Hill, sometimes Robinson has to attach the winch to a tree — "if it's large enough" — and in other areas there are established anchors for the winch.
"It's a relatively unique thing," he said of the winch cat machine.
Robinson pushed and pushed and groomed the snow, which had been left in giant lumpy piles earlier.
"I don't think there's as much snow here as Jason thinks," said Robinson, as he pushed tons of snow toward the bottom of the jump.
The snow was made by Evans — a former professional snowboarder-turned-Harris Hill guru — a week or so earlier, giving the snow time to settle and "set up," as Evans said.
The two men know each other very well: Robinson has been grooming Harris Hill almost as long as Evans and his crew from Evans Construction have been preparing the hill for the event. Evans also takes care of Mount Snow's half pipe.
He grew up in Dummerston, went to Brattleboro Union High School, and attended Keene State College for one semester before the siren call of snowboarding was too strong to resist.
For the next 10 years, Evans competed on a high level on the world snowboarding circuit, winning lots of awards, but always missing the Olympics, he said, because of timing. He switched to snowboard cross after several years competing in the half pipe, and eventually came back home to figure out what he wanted to do with his life and earn a living.
Evans and crew start work on the hill and ski jump after the New Year, and he says it takes about three weeks to get things ready.
This year, his crew had to build a total of 800 feet of new sideboards, which outline both sides of the jump, which is about 400 feet long. They used corrugated metal on the top portion, and pressure-treated lumber on the bottom, to minimize rot, since the sideboards stay in place year-round.
Evans and his crew "blew snow" for five nights, starting in late January, using a compressor on loan from Mount Snow to create giant piles. It's Robinson's job to spread it around — like snowy frosting on a giant, very steep, cake.
Contact Susan Smallheer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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