Helder der Nacht: Heroes of the Night


Grooming the terrain, Will Jacobs ’16.5 operated the Snowcat on the slopes in Chile (Courtesy of Will Jacobs).

By Hye-Jin Kim

“There’s something surreal about it. You feel like God,” Will Jacobs ’16.5 said.

Jacobs drives a Snowcat: a 20,000 lb. hulk of metal capable of grooming sub-par snow into quality skiing terrain. In Germany, where the machines are made, a Snowcat driver is called “Helder der nacht,” which translates to “hero of the night.”

But with this great title comes great responsibility. “When you go to a ski area and it’s a really bad ski day, sometimes that’s the weather conditions,” Jacobs said. “Most of the time, it’s the groomer who doesn’t know what they’re doing.”

His training began during his Feb-mester in New Zealand, where he did an unpaid apprenticeship at Whakapaka ski resort for three weeks. Since then, he’s worked at ski resorts in Chile and at Squaw Valley in California.

Jacobs described the thrill of driving a Snowcat as a power trip. “When you’re up there during a snowstorm in the night, you can’t see a thing and you’re pushing piles of snow so big that you can’t see out. You have enormous power.”

However, the job is not always glorious. “Sliding sideways off the mountain [in a Snowcat] is never fun,” he laughed, recalling a scary incident in New Zealand.

The hours are also unconventional. Jacob’s day usually began around 4 or 5 p.m. when trails close, to 11 p.m. or later. At Squaw Valley in California, he groomed during “the graveyard shift,” which ran from midnight to when the mountain opened the next morning at 8 a.m. “That’s just awful. I did that for a week. It’s not something I’d ever want to do in the long run,” he said.

Though Jacobs loves spending time on the mountain in a Snowcat, the Boston native never had dreams of becoming a ski bum when he got into grooming. “It’s not a ski bum job,” he said, citing the late-night hours, and required experience with heavy machinery that most people lack. “Skiing is kind of an upper-class sport, and being able to run a Snowcat is more of a middle class occupation. That was my situation.”

Currently, Jacobs is on the Snowbowl and the Rikert Nordic Center’s substitute list in case one of the regular groomers calls in sick, a rare occasion that happened once this year.

“I just do it for free. It’s a fun activity for me,” he said.

Even when he got paid working at Squaw Valley, he didn’t earn much, only around $12-13 an hour. Jacobs now considers his unique Snowcat skill set as a hobby. “I’ve wanted to do it since I was probably five years old,” he said. “When you’re five, you like any and every big machine. That love of big trucks, I never grew out of it.”​