The Snowcat Operator
Photos & Story By Emily Stifler Wolfe
What it Takes: on any given day, it takes approximately 935 people with a wide array of skills and knowledge to make Big Sky Resort run. Together, these individuals form a complex, agile human machine that is constantly adjusting to changing conditions. This series chronicles “what it takes” to operate the resort through the eyes of some of these people.
After 34 years, Ed Seth is the “Zen-like father-figure” of Lone Mountain grooming
The headlights reflect off the snowy mountainside and falling flakes, bright white against the inky black night.
With his right hand, Ed Seth toggles the joystick on the snowcat, lifting the tiller so it floats on the snow, instead of digging in. With his left, he moves the sticks, adjusting his speed and direction with movements so delicate they’re hardly visible. The machine, a 22,000-pound Prinoth Bison, responds to every touch.
“I keep the music quiet in here, because I like to hear the cat,” Seth says. “It’s basically talking to you all night long if you’re paying attention. Right now, it’s running 100%. The tracks are good. Blades are good. The machine is good. The hydraulics aren’t whining. This thing’s running like a clock.”
Seth goes silent, focusing. It’s his third lap on Bighorn, and in front of him, snow is piling into heaps. It’s 6 p.m. in early January, and only the cat drivers and snowmaking team are on the mountain.
A small screen gives Seth data points—how hard the engine is working, how deep and fast the cutter bar is churning, and where the comb that lays out the corduroy is in relation to the snow. Seth monitors these out of the corner of his eye, and occasionally glances behind him, but largely, he drives the Bison by feel. After 34 years of driving snowcats on Lone Mountain, it’s almost like an extension of his body.
“I’m surprised I made it up that,” Seth says near the top of the steeps, his quiet voice blending into the machine. “All those moguls. It got a little soft.”
Seth and other groomers sometimes say their job is to “put the mountain back together.” When they do it well, no one even notices: Skiers show up in the morning and, just like that! There’s fresh corduroy. Perfect for slicing trenches into with your edges. It’s like magic.
Only it’s not. Every night, a team of 18 people groom the mountain, half of them working from 4 p.m. to midnight, and the rest from midnight to 9 or 10 a.m.
They track-pack the early season snow to set up the base. They lay corduroy on your favorite groomers like Elk Park Ridge or Mr. K. They sculpt the terrain park jumps and chairlift ramps, and winch cats up the Elkhorn headwall. And once they get really good, they clear avalanche debris from the narrow alpine roads like the Duck Walk.
“It’s stuff people don’t even notice, and it takes a ton of work and a lot of knowledge and experience,” said Tom Marshall, who oversees all mountain operations at the resort.
Originally from Butler, Maryland, Seth learned to telemark at Wisp Resort while attending community college in western Maryland. In 1980, he transferred to Montana State University in Bozeman, packing up his Honda Civic and driving west with a friend before school started.
“I was 21, and I knew I wasn’t going back,” he said.
Seth started a 17-year career as a wildland firefighter on the massive fires of 1988 in Yellowstone, and that same year got hired on at Big Sky making snow and grooming. Back then, the mountain had a fleet of LMC 3700 Thiokol cats, which Seth described as “literally a snow tractor—loud, with a small cab.” He managed the grooming department for a decade starting in 1995, and came on year-round in 2005.
During that time, he and his wife, Teri, a forest environmental coordinator for the Custer Gallatin National Forest, settled in Gallatin Gateway and raised a daughter, who graduated from nursing school in 2021. This past summer, he and the crew helped Doppelmayer install the new Swift Current 6 chairlift, doing excavation for the towers and chair barn at the top.
“Here I am,” Seth says as he heads for another lap down Bighorn. He grins. “There’s worse things in life. I’ve got a great wife and a kid and a roof over my head and a job. I don’t ask for much.”
You might think grooming is a mellow job—groomed runs are, after all, usually tamer to ski than ungroomed areas. But on Lone Mountain, you’d be wrong.
Sometimes it snows so hard, Seth turns off all the lights and drives by the contour of the ground and diffused light from the base area.
“I’ve had vertigo more than once, where I couldn’t tell if I was moving forward or backward.”
If there’s loose snow on a sidehill, you can get pulled into a gully and have to get winched out.
But the most serious deal is clearing the Duck Walk, a snowcat-width road with a precipitous dropoff on one side and the 1,500-foot avalanche paths of Lenin and Marx above it. Only the most experienced operators get that job.
“Nine times out of ten, [when I go] clear it in the morning, it’s snowing and flat light, and you can’t see anything,” Seth said. “If you aren’t hugging the inside, you’re probably sticking it out too far.”
After all these years, Seth knows what to do if you slide off the edge. You accelerate.
“[You don’t] pull back on the sticks, because the tracks will lock up, and then you’re nothing more than a 20,000-pound sled,” Seth said, explaining that with the tracks rolling, you have a chance of keeping control. You can also use the blade or the tiller to steer your way out of trouble, which are extremely advanced tactics.
While his technical skills and knowledge of grooming this mountain are second to none, Seth’s kind demeanor earn him equal respect.
“Over the years I’ve known Ed, he’s always been there to help people out,” said grooming manager Matt Fregly. “He’s a quiet, behind-the-scenes person who makes a big difference.”
Fregly says Seth helps train newer operators, and regularly comes in an hour or two before his shift to wash windshields, grease hydraulics, or change fuel filters on the fleet.
Mountain manager Adam West called Seth a “Zen-like father-figure on the crew.”
The snow begins to let up later in the evening, as Seth clears the ski patrol shack atop Andesite. He threads the blade between the small log building and a tree, and drags snow off the deck.
As he approaches retirement, Seth says when the time comes, he’d like to keep driving snowcats a couple days a week.
“Why have I been doing this so long?” he asks. “I ask myself that every day. What’s there not to like? Would you rather work in a concrete city? It’s been a good ride. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been fun.”