Ed Roper grew up in a farming family in Florida, learning from a young age how to run and maintain equipment. As an adult, Roper has always worked in the outdoor industry. For many years he was a kayak company sales rep and rafting guide during warmer months, and a ski patroller and cat ski guide in winter, a nice balance of interests and activities. Roper first learned to ski after moving to McCall in 1986 to work as a rafting guide on the Salmon River.
In 2002 Roper volunteered with Payette Lakes Ski Club (PLSC) and helped keep Little Ski Hill going. Soon, in 2004, he found himself president of the PLSC board. At that time, the club was grooming cross-country ski trails to the west of Little Ski Hill, but when the housing boom arrived and Boise Cascade sold that land to developers, the club lost access to the terrain. Sometime in 2006 or 2007, the club went to the Forest Service and received permission to groom roughly 25 kilometers of cross-country ski trails in Bear Basin. The following year, Roper became General Manager of Little Ski Hill, where as part of his job he did a bit of trail and terrain grooming. Eventually, Colby Nielsen took over Little Ski Hill, and Roper became the paid groomer for PLSC’s trails at Bear Basin in 2011. “I’m happier as the groomer; I love it,” says Roper.
The Art of Grooming
What cross-country skiers see today in terms of the excellent grooming at Bear Basin is the result of several years of on-the-job skill acquisition for Roper. “The fun part is taking what you’ve been given in terrain and snow and making it good for skiing,” Roper says. He needs at least 10 inches of snow to start the season’s grooming using a snowmobile towing a tiller, and 20-30 inches before he can use a snow cat to groom.
PLSC currently has two alpine grooming machines – a Bombardier Alpine, designed to groom a 16-foot path, and a 2012 Pistonbully which PLSC was recently able to purchase with a combination of donations, grants from the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation and McCall Local Option Tax (LOT) funds. Roper also uses a snowmobile to groom; it’s cheaper to operate than the Bully and so is used when all that’s needed is some buffing of the trail surface. Roper notes that beginning about five years ago, LOT funding allowed him to start grooming every day, but only with judicious use of both the cat and the snowmobile to keep expenses down.
Roper knows that consistently good grooming contributes to skier confidence that they’ll have a good experience at Bear Basin. “Season pass sales have gone through the roof,” says Roper, “a vote of confidence. People see us using the money, reinvesting it in equipment and supporting Nordic skiing.”
Having honed his grooming skills over the past several years, Roper says that these days he can groom the area fairly quickly, bumper to bumper. “The hardest part – a fun sort of hard – is concentrating for four to six hours,” he says. That’s how long it usually takes using the Bully; if Roper uses the snowmobile to groom, the work goes a little slower. “The first time this season, the snow level was low so I had to be really careful. There was dirt and rocks, which can tear up equipment. It took me over six hours.” To help pass the time while grooming, Roper listens to books on tape and podcasts.
The cockpit of the Bully is a marvel of complexity requiring visual and manual dexterity to operate. When driving the rig, Roper steers with his left hand, his right hand resting on a joy stick that provides four-way movement of the plowing blade up front, with two buttons controlling twelve different functions. The tiller towed behind the Bully provides that smooth corduroy-textured surface valued by skate skiers, as well as a set of tracks on one side for the classic skiers. “That’s the real challenge of grooming,” Roper admits, “to flatten the trail out, constantly watching the tiller and using all of the various controls.” For example, there are wings on each end of the plow blade which independently pivot in or out to hold in or peel off snow to help flatten the trail. The blade also rolls forward and back; moving it forward allows the teeth to engage and cut aggressively, moving snow forward to fill cracks and divots. All of that blade work prepares the trail for the tiller. The tiller spins; Roper can make it float or push it down, breaking snow crystals so they reform and create a hard base. “A groomer looks at the snow and tries to get the right result. The Big Bear trail is my biggest challenge to get flat because of the sloping ground underneath. Last year with 40 inches of snow was the closest I’ve gotten.” And, Roper adds, when the rig itself is tilted on a sloping trail, the geometry gets challenging in terms of making it all come out flat: eyes, inner ear, and right hand on the joy stick must work together.
With acquisition of the Bully, Roper had to up his grooming game. “The blade sometimes reacts before the groomer going over an uphill, so I have to pay attention and blade out of sync; on a downhill the blade will auger in if I don’t pull it up soon enough.” Each morning on the job provides new learning opportunities. “Every snowstorm is different,” says Roper. “Sometimes I corral snow on the trail and have to push it off. Sometimes light powder flies away so I push it off because it doesn’t stay, the tiller can’t handle more than three to four inches of snow without splattering.” Roper says mental fatigue is one of his biggest tests. “I’m more likely to make mistakes after four hours,” he says. “I might flip snow the wrong way, or move some over the tracks at an intersection. I don’t like seeing my past mistakes out there. I only get one shot at it and can’t fix all my mistakes, so I wait until the next day.” It’s when Roper skis the trails himself that he really sees his accomplishments as well as his mistakes, but adds that grooming is an art and his own skiing inspires him to be better. “One day,” he says with a smile, “it will be perfect. My paintbrush is a big red groomer.”
Roper estimates that by now he has around five hundred hours in the grooming cats. “It’s still relatively new to me,” he says. “Some groomers have ten to twenty thousand hours.”
Roper posts daily trail condition updates to the InIdaho website after he finishes grooming. His posts are honest: they state when trails were last groomed and the next expected grooming; provide accurate descriptions of trail conditions so skiers know what to expect; and often include good prognostications regarding the short-term weather forecasts so skiers can plan accordingly.
When PLSC first started providing groomed cross-country ski trails, dogs were restricted. Now all of the trails at Bear Basin are dog-friendly, and Roper reports that PLSC sells lots of season passes for dogs ($25 per dog for the 2017/2018 season), which of course are coupled with season passes for the owners. The only complaints Roper gets about dogs relate to poop on the trails when it hasn’t snowed in a while.
Looking Toward the Future
This season saw the realization of one of Roper’s and the PLSC’s bigger goals: the arrival of a substantial warming hut, paid for with a combination of grant funds, LOT money and community fundraising support. The building – similar to a portable construction site office – replaces the yurt used in past years. Set on wheels, it can be moved in at the start of the ski season and removed at the end, meeting Forest Service requirements. With infrastructure in good shape – grooming equipment, the new hut – and strong season and day pass sales, Roper says the club is focusing on increasing community programs with more races and ski lessons while hoping to grow available terrain by expanding the area they’re allowed to use under their Forest Service permit, pushing out the boundaries as well as bringing the current snowshoe trail system within the permitted area. Adding groomed trails for fat bikes and runners is also being considered. A big dream of Roper’s is to someday connect the Bear Basin system with Brundage Mountain Resort for a ski race.
Knowing that keeping the cross-country ski trails “groomed” in summer – free of downed trees, for example – makes for better-groomed trails in winter, especially with low snow levels, Roper is hopeful that the Forest Service will let him do some summer grooming. “Yellowstone can support their Thanksgiving Ski Festival because of the dirt work done underneath during summer,” Roper notes. He’d love to go over the Bear Basin routes in summer and make subtle changes to the terrain, for example rolling rocks out of the way.
Roper says he has no plans to retire from grooming Bear Basin, so those who love the area’s cross-country ski trails can sigh with relief knowing the excellent care will continue for the foreseeable future. But Roper admits that grooming seven days a week is hard on home life, so Larry Phillips is learning the ropes, grooming a couple days a week, and the two will job-share going forward. That will allow Roper plenty of opportunities to keep practicing his art, driving his “brush” through the snow in all sorts of conditions, striving to provide skiers with perfectly groomed trails.[All photos by McCall Digest.]