Climb aboard and watch the ski slopes take shape

If the idea of climbing into a vintage snowgrooming machine for a late-night ride on the slopes and trails of Seven Springs seems a bit bizarre, know this:

Reservations are required.

And at least one kneel-down engagement is part of its history.

The hourlong Snowcat rides cost $22 and depart daily during snow season at 11 p.m., midnight and 1 a.m. The yellow machine, which clanks and crunches along on tracks, has a custom-made plywood cabin that can accommodate up to 10 guests. (Call 1-800-452-2223, ext. 3000, by 10:30 p.m.)

It has cushioned seats, seat belts, large windows with small sliding vent windows on all four sides, four undersized corner fans that are designed to defog the windows but frequently aren't up to the task, heaters under the seats and a squawky communications system that should be replaced.

So what was the verdict when six passengers, all friends, regrouped in front of the fireplace in the hotel lobby after the 11 o'clock ride on a recent Friday night?

They said they had a wonderful time.

"I thought the ride was very comfortable, [long enough] and gave wonderful views of the mountain as well as some of the prep work that is required to get the slopes ready for the day," said Laura Brown, 25, of Arlington, Va., a technical writer.

"My only suggestion would be to [provide] more of a history of the resort since it's quite old and has had many changes/additions over the years.

"I'd also like to know more about how much work it takes to groom the mountain and make snow overnight -- how many snowmakers, [snow grooming machines], people, man hours, etc.

"Maybe they can add a tour guide in the cabin. I would suggest friends and family do it the next time they are up," she said.

Sylvia Parsons of Falls Church, Va., who is recovering from a concussion while snowboarding with her helmet on last month in West Virginia, was searching for low-risk activities on the Seven Springs website when she spotted the late-night Snowcat rides.

"It looked like a fun and affordable way to still get out on the slopes for a while," she said.

Ms. Parsons, 26, a strategic planner for Northrop Grumman, enjoyed the heated cabin and padded seats. She would like to have all the seats face the front of the grooming machine, but she and her friends adapted by turning around and standing or sitting on their knees.

"Visibility could have been a little better," she added. "The windows did fog up a bit, and I know that it gave others some difficult views.

"The driver's [pre-ride] comments helped provide some understanding of the route that we would be taking, but I had trouble remembering it throughout the ride and would prefer more real-time commentary through a speaker or other method. A map of the route would be helpful."

After slowly climbing the front side of the resort on Boomerang, a beginner trail shaped like the angular Australian throwing club, the groomer reached the summit. It stopped for a photo op at the top of Stowe, a slope enjoyed by intermediate and advanced skiers and snowboarders. The well-lit site overlooks the hotel and adjacent buildings.

"I would have enjoyed one more stop maybe, but the stop that [we] did make was so beautiful that it was definitely worthwhile, and we are more than satisfied with the great photos that we got," Ms. Parsons said.

The driver, Jeff Miller, 46, of Somerset County, is in his 25th year as a Seven Springs employee, most of it on snowgrooming machines. He volunteered to take photos as the group posed and then mugged for the camera.

"I enjoy meeting tour guests," he said. "They really make my night. Some don't ski or snowboard so the tour gives them an opportunity to see what's on both sides of the mountain, the snowmaking and grooming, the buildings."

He said the tours began at least 10 years ago when he took former CEO Scott Bender for a short ride and got a "Let's go for it" from him. The tours have been a nightly staple ever since.

There is at least one touching story.

Mr. Miller said one of the resort's snowmakers and a co-worker built a large snowman at the bottom of the Gunnar chairlift several years ago. The snowmaker then invited his girlfriend to join him on the 1 a.m. ride. They were the only ones on board.

As the machine approached the snowman, the girlfriend, who has a snowman collection, was delighted. Mr. Miller opened the cabin door, pulled down the short metal grid ladder and railing and watched as the snowmaker led his girlfriend to the snowman.

The snowmaker knelt down, showed her a ring and proposed.

"She said 'yes,' " Mr. Miller said with a smile.

"I really enjoyed being a part of that."

Lawrence Walsh writes about recreational snow sports for the Post-Gazette.

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