NEWRY, Maine — Ronnie Mills of Mexico, Maine, a 28-year veteran groomer at Sunday River Ski Resort, took home top honors in the National Ski Areas Association’s (NSAA) third annual “PhaTcat Challenge” grooming competition. NSAA bills the PhaTcat Challenge as a true test of grooming operator skill and efficiency to determine the industry’s ultimate top operator. The event was held Feb. 7 at Mount Snow in West Dover, Vt.
Mills won $1000 and recognition from his peers for being the best at his profession, despite having to use equipment unfamiliar to him.
“It was tough to convince Ronnie to go because the machine he was required to use in the competition was completely different than the one he uses at Sunday River. He knew he had a chance to do well but he was pretty surprised to win it all,” said Alan Lowe, Sunday River Grooming Manager.
Twenty competitors from all over the northeastern United States and Quebec participated. Mills scored 830 out of 900 possible points in an obstacle course that involved complex maneuvers such as getting the machine’s 16-foot wide tiller through cones with four inches of clearance on each side, picking up an oversized truck tire and carrying it through a slalom course, and demonstrating clean passes on the edge of the trail.
“The purpose of the competition is to instill a culture of safety and encourage drivers to bring their skill sets to operator level,” said Marvin Collins, Sunday River Vice President of Mountain Operations. “Anyone can drive a snowcat, but it takes years to become a true operator.”
Sunday River’s 20 snow groomers have a combined total of 281 years’ experience. “The rule of thumb is that it takes five years to become comfortable operating grooming equipment and understand the nuances of the mountain. To become a really skilled operator, it takes at least eight to ten years,” said Collins. “It is extremely rare in the ski industry for a grooming department to have such a low turnover rate.”
Sunday River has a total of 131 trails spread across eight mountain peaks, and at peak season, up to 90 of them are groomed nightly. Sunday River is widely known for having the most dependable snow in the east due to its grooming skill and snowmaking capability.
The second place operator was from Killington in Vt. and third place was a tie between an operator from Mount Snow and another from Mont Ste. Anne in Quebec.