Grooming isn’t just for dogs; Workers have turned in some Olympic-caliber snow plowing at Games

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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PARK CITY, Utah – Anyone hoping to make a pilgrimage to the halfpipe where three American men swept the medals Monday will be sorely disappointed.

Within a few hours of Ross Powers’ gold-medal run, the cheers and ska-punk were replaced with the sounds of churning engines and crashing snow.

“It’s all got to come down,” said Kevin Klepser, 39, the Alaskan commercial fisherman/Utahn snow expert whose job was to tear down the halfpipe. “It’ll look like it was never here.”

The 17-foot-tall halfpipe at Park City Mountain Resort was located right on the spot that will be the finish line for the snowboard parallel giant slalom, which starts Thursday, and the alpine giant slalom next week.

Normally, halfpipes don’t get torn down so quickly – they are usually allowed to melt away. “As far as we know, this is just the second time that this sort of changeover’s ever been done,” said Brad Williams, director of product management for the utility vehicles division of Bombardier, the Canadian company hired to make the switch. The first time was a year ago on this same course, at a World Cup event that served as a test run.

The preparation for Monday night began four years ago, when Bombardier was awarded the contract and started planning for the Games. While the company is in charge of snow grooming at all the Olympic slopes, from moguls to downhill, it immediately spotted the never-before-attempted halfpipe changeover as a challenge.

It knew it had to assemble a team of top snow groomers to get the job done.

“You have Olympic athletes here, but you also have Olympic-caliber groomers,” Williams said. “We were supposed to give these guys some training, but when I saw who was going to be here, I said, ‘These guys don’t need any training. They’re that good.'”

Snow groomers are generally a nocturnal breed, noticed little by the skiers and snowboarders they serve. Most are people who just like to ski and find the profession an easy excuse to stick around a course, Williams said. “But the people who really love it and make a career out of it – they’re the top-notch people.”

Klepser is one of them. Growing up around commercial fishing boats in Ketchikan, Alaska, he figured out early on that he is good with big, powerful machines, “especially anything with hydraulics,” he said.

Six years ago, after buying a home in Park City, he started getting interested in driving the cats, as the massive snow-grooming machines are known. After a while, he gained a sterling reputation as a groomer, particularly on drier, man-made snow.

“To be able to learn so much and get to be so respected to be involved in the Olympics – it’s just so cool, so righteous,” he said, showing the modern snowboarder vocabulary that infects many who move to Park City.

Klepser had always been interested in snow science, but when he learned he would be involved in the Olympics, he started studying in earnest. “Anytime a European would come down here, I’d just stick on them and be a sponge,” he said. “‘How do you do this? How do you do that?'”

At about 8 p.m. Monday, Klepser was piloting his cat on top of the halfpipe’s right wall of snow. He rammed his nine-ton machine into the wall, jerking back and forth, shoving a huge swath of snow into the channel that hours earlier had been the site of American gold, silver and bronze. A few times, he came teeteringly close to the edge, toward the 17-foot drop into that channel, but he always pulled back at the last minute.

(“They’re very exciting machines – especially if you’re a guy,” Williams said later. Williams, despite his high position within the company, is the kind of guy who says, with honest regret, that “you keep getting promoted and, unfortunately, you get to spend less time driving these things.”)

All along, Klepser was watching and feeling, through the blade at the end of his 275-horsepower weapon. He looked for snow that seemed a little crustier, a little more powdery or a little more wet than he’d expected.

“A couple of times just now, I ran into some pockets of snow that just didn’t belong there,” he said mid-plow. “They just didn’t feel right coming off the blade. They were soft, but they weren’t sugary. They were a mushy soft.”

Klepser and his three compadres worked all the way through Monday night, unknown to the skiers who would benefit from their work Wednesday. Klepser’s shift ended at midnight, but he wanted his boss to let him stay until the job was done: “I’ve been preparing for this. I got my rest beforehand, and I’m ready to stay as long as I have to.”

By 8 a.m. Tuesday, the halfpipe was gone. It took more than a week to build and sculpt it, but it took only hours to rip it down. Snow tillers spent Tuesday smoothing out the area to make it a suitable end point for snowboard slalom.

“It’s all gone,” Williams said. “They did their job.”