As you enjoy your first runs this winter, remember that perfectly groomed morning corduroy wasn’t always so. Consistently good snow surfaces didn’t exist even 25 years ago. Slopes were typically pocked with hard bumps, icy patches, frozen crud and soil-stained ruts.
It wasn’t as if ski area operators weren’t trying to create easy-turning snow. In the 1930s and into the 1940s, they gave lift tickets to skiers willing to sidestep up the hill to pack down the slopes. A few operators used snowmobiles and snowcats to haul farm disc harrows and rollers over the snow.
Steve Bradley, a former Dartmouth racer and art instructor at the University of Colorado, designed the first dedicated groomer. An art instructor’s pay was poor, so in 1950 Bradley got himself a job running the Winter Park ski area in Colorado. From the beginning, Bradley had an unwavering focus on manicuring a snow surface that his customers could reliably enjoy. “Steve was obsessed with getting rid of moguls,” recalls Jerry Groswold, who later succeeded Bradley as Winter Park chief. “He invented a whole array of contraptions—chain link dragged down the slopes by two skiers, a hydraulically adjustable blade that didn’t work. The ski area was a graveyard of his experiments.”
Wheeled or tracked machines got stuck in the snow or deeply gouged it. Bradley had an inspiration: Use the drag lifts at Winter Park to haul a grooming device uphill. In 1952, he designed a four-foot-wide slatted wood roller that hooked onto a T-bar. After detaching it on top, a skier steered the gravity-powered roller down the slope, smoothing the snow. Bradley added a blade to chop off the tops of moguls, and giant skis for the device to ride on.
For a dozen years, the Bradley Packer smoothed slopes. Crews became so skilled they could schuss down the mountain, often in danger of being groomed themselves. One pilot forgot to raise the cutting blade when he hit a ridge, and crashed as the 500-pound roller flew overhead. The spring-loaded device that controlled the blade could fracture a wrist. It was dangerous work.
As chairlifts replaced drag lifts in the mid-1960s, the Bradley Packer could no longer be pulled uphill. The inventor saw the end coming. By then a director of the National Ski Areas Association, he urged companies like Bombardier to devise specialized groomers. The first ones were similar to his roller. Eventually they evolved into today’s huge rototillers, weighing 10 tons and costing as much as a quarter of a million dollars. Resorts soon began cutting wider, more gradual slopes to permit the giant groomers to operate efficiently. What an illusion they’ve fostered...advanced skiers looking like experts, intermediates making elegant turns!
For his work, Bradley was elected to the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame. He died in 2002, not far from where he invented the first device to smooth the way for millions of skiers to come.