As the old snowcat purred to life, four men climbed into the bucket on the front and sat shoulder to shoulder. Three others crammed into the enclosed cab, and the rest of the crew jumped into the open bed in the back.
Each night starts out the same for Sugarloaf’s nighttime snowmakers. In the evening, they gather at the base of the mountain, gear up and pile onto the snowcat for a rumbling crawl to the top of Maine’s second tallest peak.
It’s a 12-hour shift — 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. It’s dark. It’s windy. And it’s cold.
“It takes a rare breed,” said crew foreman Seth Warman, 25, of Millinocket, who has been making snow at Sugarloaf for the past six years.
The job has a high turnover rate, Warman said, but there’s a core group of nighttime snowmakers at Sugarloaf who’ve been making snow together for several years. They’re constantly training newcomers, who often don’t last the whole season.
“We don’t do it for the job, we do it for the mountain,” Warman said. “Most snowmakers are boarders or skiers on this mountain. It’s pretty cool to be able to make good snow on your favorite trail, then ski it the next morning.”
“My friend had done it before me and told me all about it, and I just went wide-eyed for it,” said 23-year-old Jake Hulett of Mount Vernon.
This winter, Hulett returned to Sugarloaf for his third season of snowmaking and decided to switch from the day crew to the night crew.
“The night crew was dropping like flies,” Hulett said. “Only the veterans stuck around. Some people weren’t really ready for it. So I figured, might as well try it out.”
As he expected, nights on the mountain are harsh. At the top of the mountain, the crew leaves the snowcat, pairs up and disperses on foot. They then work their way down the mountain on different trails with the help of a “butt sled,” a round piece of plastic that the snowmakers use to travel down the mountain quickly and safely.
“You custom cut it out to your perfect butt shape,” Hulett said, holding up the piece of plastic, which each snowmaker fastens to their pants with paracord.
Sitting on the handmade sled, a snowmaker will use an ice ax or wrecking bar as the rudder and brakes as he cruises from hydrant to hydrant, firing up snow guns along the way.
They’re outfitted with helmets, goggles, ice cleats, headlamps and layers of warm clothing, but still, injuries happen. And even the hardiest workers can fall victim to extreme cold. After all, snowmaking requires a temperature of 28 degrees Fahrenheit or less.
“Last night we were on Spillway X-Cut and the wind was gusting up to 80 [mph] at least, maybe 90,” Hulett said. “And there’s the negative temperatures.”
Constantly working with water, snowmakers grow accustomed to being coated with ice and snow. Every few hours, they take a break to thaw out. At that point, caffeine often enters the equation.
“It’s going nocturnal, having to sleep during the day, that’s the hardest part,” Hulett said.
The snowmaking system covers 618 acres of terrain, but the crew only tackles certain trails each night. The water is pumped from the Carrabassett River at about 4,500 gallons per minute. And a nearby pond serves as a secondary water supply, from which they pump about 1,000 gallons a minute.
In general, their goal is to make as much snow as possible, maximizing the water supply by turning on snow guns all the way down the mountain. But it’s not that simple.
Machinery breaks. The pumps get clogged with leaves. A crewmember twists an ankle. Hoses and hydrants freeze. Drunken resort guests wander onto the trails. And when the wind suddenly shifts, the guns need to be repositioned. They’re constantly troubleshooting.
“I’m glad I grabbed the torch,” said Johnny Markham, 35, of Kingfield, as he struggled with the handle of the hydrant.
Markham, who has been making snow, grooming trails and working other ski mountain jobs since he graduated high school, is the crew’s snowcat operator.
Firing up a sizeable blowtorch, Markham held the blue flame on the hydrant.
“When it’s colder, the metal turns white real quick. It’s like some funky alchemy,” he said.
He stood patiently for a minute or two, turned off the torch, and grabbed ahold of the handle with his thick, elk skin mittens. It turned. A mist of water streamed out of the snowgun overhead, transforming to fresh powder as it hit the frigid air.
“After you’ve been doing this for a while, you can hear when a gun’s good and when a gun’s not right,” he said as he walked to the middle of the trail and stood under the falling powder. “A good snowmaker goes out and checks the snow. It’s good if the snow bounces off you.”
Due to the physically demanding nature of the job, the night crew is usually made up of male workers in their 20s and 30s. As they get older, veteran snowmakers often become trail groomers, Markham said, an equally crucial job that’s performed in the comfort of a warm snowcat. Both crews work through the night — stars winking overhead and the lights of the village glowing from below.
“You’re struggling on that last run, but once you see the sun come up, there’s a whole new energy about everyone,” Hulett said. “It’s pretty sweet.”
“The most beautiful sunrise I’ve seen has been from the top of this mountain,” Markham said. “The alpine glow shines just on the mountains, turns them orange.”
When their shift ends at 7 a.m., the mountain is covered with fresh, smooth snow. The trails are ready. And the weary snowmakers? Some return home to crawl into bed and sleep the day away. Others exchange ice cleats for skis and snowboards, then hit the slopes to enjoy the snow they’ve just created.