The Saratoga Sun -

Groom in the gloom

Landon McGuire grooms and maintains 50 miles of Sierra Madre snowmachine trails in the dark

 

Erik Gantt

Landon McGuire blazes through the night near the Wyoming-Colorado border in the Sierra Madre Mountains. Up to 16-inches of fresh snow were on the Hog Park Road during its Monday night grooming.

What do you do when it's nine below zero and you are at the state line on the Hog Park Road at 10 p.m.? If you're Landon McGuire, you turn the snowcat around and finish the last 27 miles of trail grooming for the night.

Grooming and patrolling

McGuire, a Saratoga resident, has been grooming trails as a U.S. Forest Service employee for the last eight winters while he has worked on the fire crew in the summertime. He also patrols the trails during the daytime along with Tyler Christen.

"Interface with the public is key and important," McGuire said of his work patrolling and grooming the trails in the Sierra Madres. McGuire and Christen maintain the Hog Park Road and the Battle Pass Highway for snowmobilers, cross country skiers and snowshoers. That accounts for over 50 miles of the 148 miles of winter trail in the Sierra Madres.

"We have a unique situation here, we're the only snowcat that is operated by the Forest Service and the state. The rest of the cats are operated by contracts that the state of Wyoming has ... or the state hires their own operators to run their cats," McGuire said.

Grants and agreements with the Forest Service means the state supplies the diesel and the equipment and funds the operator's salaries. Part of that funding is also patrol dollars.

On the weekends McGuire and Christen ride snowmobiles and check trail user registration and safety. "The snowmobile registration stickers are solely what pays for the operations of all of our equipment," McGuire said.

Compliance with snowmobile registration does not seem to be a problem in southern Wyoming.

"I would guess snowmobile sticker compliance, from what I have seen here in the time I have been patrolling, I bet you we are 90 to 95 percent. There are days when Tyler and I will check 75, 80 people in a day on the Snowy Range and everybody will have stickers."

A yearly snowmobile registration permit is $25 for recreational users and $75 for commercial operators.

McGuire and Christen are trained as Forest Protection Officers, a type of Forest Service law enforcement officer. "That's one of the reasons why the state funds us. Because it's a state sticker, but they technically have no way to enforce it on the Forest. So they rely on the Forest Service law enforcement to enforce it."

A sweet ride

McGuire said he feels lucky to have the new PistenBully 100 snowcat the state purchased this year at his disposal. The new German-made machine is built to handle the extremes of working in the Sierra Madre mountains.

It runs a four-cylinder Mercedes-Benz diesel engine supplemented by a webasto heater to warm the engine to a starting temperature on cold nights. The cat is capable of doing 15 mph but McGuire said the best speed for grooming is between five and seven mph.

The PistenBully weighs in at 8,600 pounds compared to 14,000 pounds for the Tucker machine they used to have. Even at its bantam weight the PistenBully uses 50 to 55 gallons of diesel to groom the 27 miles of trail on the Hog Park Road.

Due to the extreme cold the cat is designed to operate in, the hydraulic system uses automatic transmission fluid which is thinner than typical hydraulic fluid. The tracks on the PistenBully are also easier to adjust than the Tucker brand machines.

McGuire uses a blade on the front of the machine that has 12 adjustments to push snow into the trail and a drag to smooth the trail.

"The best analogy I have for grooming is it's like farming snow," McGuire said.

Be safe out there

They groom at night for the safety of people using the trails and because it allows them to keep the trails in better shape.

Working in the isolated mountains areas a night is not without risk.

McGuire has had a couple of breakdowns while grooming. During his first year running the cat he broke down right at the Colorado state line which is about 27 miles from the highway. Three years ago, he and Christen were out together on the first run of the season when they clipped a buried stump at about seven miles per hour, breaking a tie rod and disabling the Tucker snowcat they had at the time. They broke down at 2:30 in the afternoon at the state line and did not make it back to their truck until 12:30 a.m.

Erik Gantt

Landon McGuire grooms fresh corduroy in to the Hog Park Road.

In order to be safe the grooming crews make sure someone knows where they are, adhere to strict radio check-in times and have clothing suitable for a long snowmobile ride on hand. "I dress to snowmobile out," McGuire said. He also carries materials for making fire.

There are no warming huts available on the Sierra Madre trails so being prepared for a long, cold ride out of the mountains is paramount.

Avalanches can also be a problem. "I recommend all snowmobilers take, at a minimum, at least an awareness level class and definitely carry all the right equipment, beacon, probe ... shovel," McGuire said.

Even if the trail gets a little mogul-ridden at times, keep in mind there are folks like McGuire who have a passion for snowmobiling that are working to keep mountain trails accessible and fun.

 

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