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In his element

Freezing temperatures, snow and impassable roads are just the right forecast to keep most Southern Oregon residents home from work.

But those are exactly the elements that keep Mount Ashland grooming crew supervisor Ken Banse employed — and loving his job.

Banse, 38, is one of the least-visible employees on the mountain, doing his job during off-hours and at night. But he's perhaps one of the most crucial in keeping operations going smoothly and safely for visitors.

If he does his job right, he notes, no one should be able to tell he or his crew even showed up for work.

"You're basically driving a tractor across the surface of the snow and the trick is to make sure everything out there is smooth and you can't tell we were out there," Banse said.

With the mountain's reputation for being steeper than most, grooming is an especially important role as obstacles have to be removed and slopes made as navigable as possible.

"It really is steeper here," Banse said. "It's not just a slogan, it's an actual fact, and when you get an 18,000-pound machine, it becomes a real challenge out there when you're dealing with blizzard conditions and low visibility."

Growing up in California's San Francisco Bay Area, Banse didn't get much by way of snow days as a kid.

"I kind of grew up in the city but my parents would take me skiing a couple times a year and I fell in love with the winter environment, the mountains. I knew early on, from the time I was a child, I wasn't going to be a city dweller," he said.

Banse settled in Ashland in 1994 and worked his way up from a trash pickup crew to grooming at Mount Ashland.

For the most part, he notes, the job takes more passion than skill. On-the-job training is provided, though some folks will have a knack for the job and some won't.

"It doesn't take an experienced operator but you definitely have to have a real passion and desire to learn the job," said Banse.

The hours are a challenge, he said.

"You have to be able to stay awake all night long. It completely turns your schedule around," he said. Supervisor of a five-person crew, Banse and his charges work three 10-to-12-hour shifts per week during ski season, "but, on a real bad night, can be a 12-to-15-hour shift."

An avid skier, his days off find Banse still on his beloved mountain.

"Most of the winter I spend up there either working, skiing or sleeping. I have a refrigerator up there and I keep more food on the mountain than I do at my place," he said.

"During a big blizzard we can be up there for three days straight."

During the summer months, Banse, a trained welder, does maintenance and repairs equipment.

Banse said his job carries a big responsibility.

"We have to make sure we're not creating hazards for skiers," he said. "It could mean life or death for someone if we leave a hazard."

On a lighter note, Banse said he's just a guy out to help visitors enjoy the sport he's loved his entire life.

"I feel like skiing is my life and if I can make it more accessible for less-experienced skiers, then that's what I want to do," he said.

"I do it for the enjoyment of everybody else that likes to enjoy the mountain."

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffypollock@juno.com.

Grooming Supervisor Ken Banse stands on the top of Mount Ashland on Tuesday night with a Sno-Cat. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch