Snow-makers at Jiminy loving every minute 'till I have to leave'
HANCOCK — Kimber Francoeur and co-worker Amee McLaughlin love the outdoors. It's a good thing they do, since they spend most of the winter climbing up and down Jiminy Peak, making sure the snow guns are working and the slopes are ready for the skiers and snowboarders.
They, along with Amanda Young and Nicole Husted, are four of 18 snow-makers employed at Jiminy Peak, and the only female snow-makers on the crew.
And while it might not seem unusual for women to be toiling all night through storms and freezing temperatures to prep a whole mountain for hundreds of skiers, it is a bit unusual to have so many on one team.
"To have so many [women working] on one mountain, you don't see it that often," McLaughlin said. "But more mountains are trying to get female snow-makers and groomers."
The attraction to the job is not hard to see.
"I like being outside all the time," Francoeur said. "It's quiet and peaceful, especially in the middle of the night. And the job is physically demanding, but not too bad. It's a lot of walking, eight to 12 miles every day."
Francoeur, 28, has been snow-making at Jiminy for seven years. Today, she is a snow-maker supervisor, one of the team leaders.
McLaughlin, 36, has been a snow-maker for three years, although she started at Jiminy as a ski instructor, which she did for two years before starting to make snow. Today, she makes snow and teaches skiing at the mountain resort.
"I didn't even know it was a job until I started working here," she said. "I do love it, though. I love every minute of it till I have to leave."
And the snow-makers grow close over the season. Francoeur and McLaughlin said their co-workers are like family to them.
This season, the work environment is slightly different. After years of Jiminy's snow-makers working in three eight-hours shifts, this year, they returned to working in two 12-hour shifts, noted Brian Fairbank, chairman of the Fairbank Group, which owns and operates Jiminy Peak.
It might seem like a long shift to work when you're clambering through feet of snow in the windy cold, but they never stop moving, so, the time moves swiftly.
And they get more days off as a result.
Beyond that, the schedule is anything but routine. They can only make snow when the temperature is between 5 and 28 degrees. Anything outside those temperatures and the snow guns won't function right.
So, the work schedule is set by Mother Nature, and she is a whimsical scheduler.
The work peaks in late December, then keeps up pretty intensely as long as the temperatures are in the right zone, Fairbank said. The goal is to hit 4 to 8 feet of base, and to maintain that through the season.
Then, in early March, they usually start to ease off, as the temperatures are rising and the season is coming to an end.
The duties consist of walking from one of the 450 snow guns to the next, making sure they are aimed the right way, that the air/water mixture is right and that the lines are not jammed, and seeing that freezing water is not jamming controls or junctions.
Traveling up and down the slopes for 12 hours, they carry a torch, a walkie-talkie, a hammer, spare parts for the snow guns, such as O rings, and a notepad.
They wear lots of layers, and on top they wear waterproof boots, a helmet and waterproof coats, since they work in the snow and deal with waterlines. They usually bring several pairs of socks and extra sweatshirts because they are likely to get drenched from time to time. On their boots are crampons to help with walking on ice.
The snow guns will pump out 40 gallons of water per minute and generate giant piles of snow under each gun. Once the piles are big enough, a grooming machine will push around the snow to cover the trails. Then they do it all over again for as long as the cold snap endures.
The cold doesn't bother them, Francoeur said.
"Once you're up and moving around, you can't feel the cold, unless you have to get on the chairlift and sit still for a while. Then you try to keep your extremities moving," she said. "No matter how cold it is, you do work up a sweat."
Francoeur said she feels a wave of satisfaction after working a shift and seeing all the skiers enjoying life on the 11 miles of slopes that her team built.
"It feels really good," she said.
Scott Stafford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-629-4517.
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