SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, California — As Bryan Hickman steers one of Heavenly Ski Resort’s massive snow groomer up a steep ski run, I start to look around for a seat belt. This instinct, ingrained in me since childhood, doesn’t make much sense here, since I’m sitting in a huge enclosed machine as big as a tank, with so many feet of metal tracks digging into the snow we’re definitely one of the safest vehicles out on the mountain.
Hickman assures me we won’t be going that fast and continues to chat effortlessly while his left hand rests on the levers used to steer and his right hand moves a joystick to control other functions like lifting the blade in the front (which pushes snow around and levels terrain) and the tiller in the back (which makes that beautiful corduroy finish skiers love). Multiple screens to his right show various readings like miles per hour, snow depth and more. There’s a foot pedal at his feet, but he said he doesn’t use it much since it only ramps up the RPM.
He said driving a snow groomer, or snowcat, is more like driving a boat than driving a car, but what it’s most like is being inside a giant video game.
“The type of operator we’re looking for when we hire has changed drastically,” Hickman said. “When I hire kids these days my first interview question is, ‘Do you play video games?’ because this thing is like a giant video game. The ones that make the best groomers are the ones that are really good at video games.”
And that video game experience might be all you really need. Hickman said you only need a driver’s license to apply for a job, though it’s always nice if you have some mechanical background or you’ve driven heavy machinery. When he started he had no experience other than driving large boats.
Just out of college, Hickman decided he didn’t want a “real job.” Growing up in South Lake Tahoe all he wanted to do was ski, but he knew he didn’t want to teach ski lessons. He knew he loved driving boats in the summer and thought, maybe grooming the mountain in the winter was the next best option.
He started out on the graveyard shift, dragging pallets full of food and beverage up to the various restaurants at mountain summits and then hauling down the garbage in a snowcat. “Working night shifts is amazing. It’s a totally different world. It’s just you, the stars and the raccoons and coyotes and bears walking around,” Hickman said. “People take for granted getting that burger at 9,000 feet. They don’t know everything that goes into it.”
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Hickman’s first job as a teenager was working in lift operations and even before that, he said he was one of those little boys who was obsessed with trucks and other big machines. “There were two jobs I wanted as a kid. One was to drive boats and one was to drive heavy machinery.”
Today, he’s the senior manager of snow services for Heavenly Ski Resort and you can find him on one of Heavenly’s 20 snowcats most days. Three of the machines are reserved exclusively for carrying food and beverage up and down the mountain, some are designed for steep trails — one even has a DJ platform on the back for “mobile parties.” About 40 people total are trained to operate the machines and Hickman said they’ve had people doing the job for as long as 30 years.
“It takes years to master what you’re doing out there,” he said. “Anybody can get in and make it drive, but to actually build a run or something else takes a lot of practice and experience.”
Hickman gained much of his experience while traveling the world.
From Colorado to Russia to New Zealand, he spent much of his 20s jumping from job to job, creating race runs for expert skiers and making sure the snow was perfect for World Cups and the Olympics.
In 2008 Hickman began working with the U.S. ski team in New Zealand, building and maintaining race courses for them to train on during the American summer. After returning to Beaver Creek, Colo. for a stint working on World Cup race runs, in 2011 he was asked to head to Russia to prepare for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, training the Russians on how to build race courses.
And while he spent most of his time crafting fast, difficult runs for professionals to show off their skills on, he doesn’t usually ski them. “I love building race courses, but I have no desire to ski them,” he said with a laugh, saying he prefers an easy blue run any day.
Aside from accumulating a good roster of international friends, his travels taught him how different snow can be from country to country and even region to region. Hickman said, for example, grooming a mountain in Colorado is very different from grooming in Tahoe — Colorado gets more frequent, smaller snowstorms; we get larger ones. The snow in Colorado is drier, while the snow in Tahoe is much denser. “They call it Sierra cement,” he noted.
He also said that as much as he loved traveling the globe, Tahoe is where he loves to be. “It’s tough to leave Tahoe, that’s why I’m still here. I’ve come and gone a couple of times and I never regret coming back.”
Tessa McLean is a digital editor with SFGATE. Email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @mcleantessa.