Good morning groovy people. Good morning, Sugar Poppppp,” Brian Hughes says into his camera phone, making a popping sound as he says, “Pop.”
It’s before dawn on a February morning and Hughes pans his phone camera from the thermometer outside his snowcat back to a Killington ski run. The headlights of the grooming machine light up flakes tumbling from a dark indigo sky. Vivaldi is playing in the background over the soft hum of the engine.
After the pan from one side of the cab to the other, Brian flips the camera around and reveals himself. He is wearing a blue and purple tie-dyed t-shirt, a grey knit cap sits on top of his thick dreadlocks and his salt and pepper beard frames his contented smile.
“So, Saturday. My thermometer’s reading 18 degrees so it’s not bitterly, bitterly cold. It’s not like it’s gonna be in the negatives here but still dress for them. Frostbite is an ever, ever looming presence. Surface conditions are going to be mint. Gonna be really, really good, really edge-able. And we’re getting snow. It’s like a winter wonderland out there. So, come on out and ski.”
Hughes details what conditions will be like. Then he ends the short clip as he usually does: “Don’t litter. Don’t ever let anybody harsh your stoke. Come on out, have a great day so that others may ski. Peace.”
Later, the Killington groomer and snowmaker shares his unscripted, unsolicited weather and condition updates as he does almost every day to Facebook and Instagram.
Over the past two years Brian has become something of a social media star and a trusted source for unfiltered reporting on conditions at the East’s largest ski area.
It’s an unlikely role for someone who never saw snow until he was 28 years old.
Hughes grew up in San Diego. He graduated from San Diego State University and began working for the Defense Logistics Agency as a mid-level employee organizing the distribution of groceries to military bases. Then, in the early 1990s his job was eliminated due to cuts in military spending.
Unsure of what was next, Hughes decided to let fate chart his course. “I took out a map of the United States and I closed my eyes and decided I was gonna go wherever my finger lands and BOOM, it’s right on Vermont,” he says. “So, I packed up two suitcases and grabbed all the money I had and hopped on a Greyhound bus.”
Three days later, the bus dropped him off in Rutland. Upon arriving in the Green Mountain state, Hughes headed to Killington. “I needed a job and they said ‘Well, we got snowmaking,’” he explains. “I had no idea what snowmaking was. I thought in my head snowmaking was where they got like a big woodchipper and they stuck ice blocks in it. No, I found out that snowmaking is an actual science and they’ve gotten really good at it.”
Hughes took the job. “The fall of ’95 I saw snow fall out of the sky for the first time, I lost my mind. I was picking it up and eating it and playing in it.” Hughes had cut snowflakes out of construction paper as a kid and had seen the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra in the distance when he drove north toward Los Angeles. “But I never thought that you could see individual snowflakes without a microscope,” Brian explains.
Since that first season, he worked his way up the ladder from a novice snowmaker and groomer to his current role as a supervisor, overseeing a team of other snowmakers and groomers and helping figure out how to open new runs and make them skiable.
He’s still hands-on though and heads into “the office” at about midnight and works until 7:30 or 8:00 am. What’s Brian’s trick for working nights? “I guess I have to summon my inner vampire,” he says with a big laugh.
Killington’s snowmaking and grooming operation is one of the most impressive in the world with an arsenal of more than 1,700 snow making guns, 500 of which are low-energy.
The biggest challenge presented by snowmaking? Brian explains that the line between making wet and dry snow is “very, very fine.” It’s a science, but a little like making wine, making good snow is an art and one that takes experience.
“When you’re firing up the guns, you can actually see the type of snow that you’re going to make,” Brian explains. “If the snow coming out of the gun piles up on my jacket, doesn’t matter what happens, we’re good and it’s gonna be good, it’s gonna pile up, and it’s gonna be dry enough that you can probably ski it without grooming it.”
When it comes to grooming, it’s all about persistence. “One night you’re in there and everything’s perfect and the next night, it’s not. You just sit down, take a deep breath and think ‘I can get this done’ And then, you do. But sometimes it’s really, really windy and you see your hard work just vanish.” When this happens, Brian says, “You try again and do it over again until you can get a good skiable surface.”
All of his work, both grooming and snowmaking, is done with the goal of creating a good, strong, skiable surface so that the beginner and the intermediate can have a good day. “It’s especially important that those less skilled at skiing are able to have fun on the slopes because if they don’t have a good day, they probably won’t be coming back to Killington,” he says.
Brian’s first time on skis was in December of 1995. He began by falling off the lift and took off down the mountain before he knew the basics of how to shift his weight or use his edges. “I spent the day picking a spot about 50 feet away, heading for it and then purposefully crashing,” Brian remembers with a giggle. “And then I see these little kids on these things called snowboards. I was like ‘You know what, I could do that.’ And then I got my first snowboard and the rest is history.”
Growing up in San Diego, Brian spent a lot of time surfing and skateboarding, so snowboarding was in many ways a natural progression. “I fell in love with snow that year” Brian says. He also fell in love with Vermont. “There’s no way I’m ever gonna leave this state,” he says.
In southern California, Brian had become accustomed to polluted air and rows of trees strategically planted by landscapers. “And then I come here and it’s like, wow, this is actually what blue sky and fresh air actually look and smell like. Now, you can’t take me away from this place.”
Brian’s passion for the natural beauty of the mountains has become the driving force behind his morning video posts. One of the messages he most consistently shares is the importance of taking care of the earth.
“There’s generations upon generations of trash under the lifts. Some people feel they have the right to throw their trash everywhere—I can’t imagine what their houses look like. I preach till I’m blue in the face, ‘pick up your trash, always.’” In several videos he says, “Don’t litter, give a hoot, don’t pollute,” which he follows by making the sound an owl makes.
One day in the winter of 2019 Brian started filming himself with his phone when he was up on the mountain grooming. Later, he thought Why don’t I take a video of myself talking about my day and the conditions on the mountains to show Sugar Pop?
In the video, he shares the beautiful scenery surrounding him, what the weather will be and talks about what’s been on his mind. Brian realized that the information he was sharing might be helpful for people to know before a day on the mountain. “I thought, so let’s give them an honest ski report. And the first night I did, it was like 15 below zero. I knew that people were going to be coming up anyway, so I tell these people about how cold it is. And not to dissuade them from skiing, because you can have a good time skiing as long as you are equipped and prepared for it. I told them ‘Hey, it is currently 15 below so I suggest that you groovy people dress for it and get your edges ready and if you do that and you do this, you will have a good day’.”
Brian has since posted more than 100 videos, some with as many as 600 likes and over 50 comments. He has almost 2,000 followers on Instagram who tune in to daily video updates. He explains that he sees his job “as a way to serve the people I love who are doing the sport I love and to share about what I do, and love.”
As one of a minority of Black people on an otherwise white mountain, in an otherwise white state, Brian also feels pressure to perform. “I can’t really screw up or do anything like that because I will be figured out. If you see a Black guy working who messes up, you know it was me because I’m the one of a handful of Black guys working here.”
For Brian, though, race usually doesn’t figure into his daily life. “I look at everybody as if we’re all equal.” Nonetheless, Brian says “I would really love to see more brothers and sisters on the mountain.”
“If I can make the ski mountain a more inviting place, where there is no litter to be found, I can die a happy man,” Brian says with a sigh. “I think if more people skied and rode, the world would be a way happier and less stressed out place. I mean how could you not be happy when you’re skiing or riding? So, I just wanted to bring that across on video and try to touch people. I really don’t know what I’m doing, I’m winging it every single day.”
While Brian may be modest about the impact his daily videos have on so many, scrolling through the comments on any one of his videos makes it clear that he has a pretty sizeable fan club. “Thank you Brian! I look forward to these messages every day,” one Facebook comment reads. Another says: “When does the Brian Hughes classical mix tape come out? Love the vibes!”
Sugar Pop, Brian’s dog, loves the videos too. n