Steamboat Ski Area celebrates 50th anniversary
Steamboat Ski Area has groomed its slopes from the early days, but the original machinery used to get the job done bore little resemblance to the sleek Bombardier snowcats used today.
Former mountain manager Gary Kline recalls that the machines were small tracked vehicles made by the Oliver farm tractor company. And the first grooming implements were homemade.
“When I started, it was the first year the Christie lift ran,” Kline said.
Tucker Sno-Cats were first built in the 1930s and were produced on an assembly line by the 1940s. Kline said that when he was grooming at Steamboat Ski Area in 1963, the Tuckers weren’t considered to be rugged enough for ski area use. Instead, Steamboat used Oliver tractors.
The challenge was finding implements to groom the snow. In the early days, snow grooming equipment wasn’t used to freshen packed snow like it often is today, nor did it produce the finely ribbed corduroy surface that makes cruising on intermediate runs so appealing in the 21st century.
At Steamboat Ski Area, Kline and his colleagues resurrected old steel tractor wheels and attached them to a framework build of lodgepole pine trees.
The rig was attached to the front of the Oliver and pushed up the hill to pack down deep snow and make it more manageable for the skiing public.
“If it was deep, we had a hell of a time getting up there,” Kline said. “Sometimes you couldn’t get to the top of Christie.”
Other ski areas were using the tracked Oliver OC-3 in the 1960s. Resembling a pint-sized bulldozer with its yellow paint job, it was often referred to as a Crawler. The now-defunct Dutch Hill Ski Area in Vermont attached wooden planks to the steel track of the little tractor to expand its ability to pack the slopes.
The original groomers at Steamboat often were referred to as snow farmers because so many of the early operators were local ranchers.
Jay Fetcher — whose father, John Fetcher, was the first president of the ski area — said the agricultural community welcomed the paychecks, and the fact that grooming took place at night allowed ranchers to go home to their own tractors first thing in the morning and feed hay to their cattle.
“I really think it allowed some of the 100-cow operations to stay in business longer,” Fetcher said.