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New policy at Pebble Creek means big change for hiking

pebble creek winch cat
pebble creek ski area

INKOM, Idaho (KIFI/KIDK) - A new piece of equipment at Pebble Creek Ski Area means better snow and more efficient grooming, but it comes at a cost to some skiers.

Earlier this year, Pebble bought a winch cat, a snowcat with a huge winch and 3,000 feet of braided steel cable.

With the new purchase came a new policy: no hiking or skiing the mountain outside of operational hours--something avid skiers are adjusting to.

"It's a real cultural shift right now," said Stefan Berkle, ski patrol director.

How it works:

Mike Dixon, the general manager of Pebble, said the winch cat can break the mountain in earlier and with less snow, which is why Pebble was able to open earlier than expected this season.

The cable is locked into the top of the mountain and spools out from the winch. As the cat moves down the steep runs, it releases cable behind it.

Once the cat reaches the bottom (yes, it can reach from the top of the Sunshine lift to the very bottom of the bunny hill), the cable pulls the cat back to the top, and brings snow with it.

It cuts grooming time and cost of fuel significantly.

While the winch cat revolutionizes Pebble's snow grooming abilities, it's incredibly dangerous.

Why it's dangerous:

"When the guys get flipped around and go to head back (up the mountain) and tension (the cable), in the dark you can't see the cable and it could be extremely dangerous," Dixon said.

People hiking or skiing the mountain while the cat is operating could run into the cable, the cat, or get cut in half if the cable breaks. Dixon said the dangers are too serious to risk anything.

"The cat operators don't know where (skiers) are at and the skier doesn't know where the cat is or the cable. People have been killed with these, and we do not want that to happen up here," Dixon said.

"We've had incidents in the past where there have been some close calls and conflicts that need to be mitigated now," Berkle said.

Plus, there's no first aid after hours.

"Once final sweep is down at 4:30 p.m. during the week after we close, the ski patrol goes home, so it's just the mountain operation staff," Berkle said.

How it will affect skiers:

Those who are accustomed to hiking Pebble after hours may have trouble adjusting to the new policy.

"We understand change is hard," Dixon said. "We didn't make this decision overnight. We've done our research and we just hope everybody understands."

Back country skiing will not be affected by the new policy, as long as it's outside of Pebble's boundaries.

To accommodate nighttime hikers, some mountains designate a run that's out of the way of the groomers. Dixon said that may not be possible for Pebble.

"Every ski hill is unique with their layout. Ours unfortunately starts narrow at the bottom, so we don't really have anywhere to send people," Dixon said.

Night skiing will be offered on Friday and Saturdays on the Aspen Lift beginning in January.

How it will affect the snow:

The new winch cat will help maintain the snow, especially during light years.

"The more we're out on the snow at night with the groomers, the harder it is on the snow. On low snow years, like right now we're still lacking a little bit of snow, the less time the cats are on the mountain, the better for the snow," Dixon said.

By eliminating out-of-hours skiing, snowcat operators won't have to back track what snow they've groomed, which means better snow for everyone.

"When (skiers) come in and (the snow is) freshly groomed, they leave deep trenches and we have to go back and fix all of that--if we know about it," Dixon said.

Dixon said the ski hill's insurance company strongly urges them not to have people on the mountain when operating their snowcats, and the Forest Service requires Pebble to prioritize safety.

Emma Iannacone

Emma is a reporter for Local News 8 and KIDK Eyewitness News 3.

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