There’s Greener Groomers in Skiing’s Future

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Dan Osborne is a skier — who happens to live in Florida. As such you might not think much of his idea to revolutionize ski slope grooming with his triple-wide “Snow Processing Units” that’ll turn death cookie crud into corduroy three times as fast as is presently feasible. You might not think much of groomers to begin with.

But corduroy, like it or not, is certainly here to stay. And it’s not without some great irony that ski resort maintenance contributes to the climate change that is making consistent snowfall far less consistent. Grooming slopes burns fossil fuel and even if you happen to be a certain senator from Oklahoma and don’t believe in all that climate change hokum, regardless of political persuasion you can certainly agree that gas costs money, and the more grooming you have to do, the more expensive your lift ticket will run.

Osborne’s idea attacks the fuel-thirsty groomer with tried-and-true law mowing technology. “On the way to my office in Sarasota, Florida, I saw a tractor cutting the grass three lanes wide down the center of the Interstate,” says Osborne. “That was my ‘aha’ moment. Hundreds of hours of research and much refinement later the EcoGroomer evolved to a place where it is both technically feasible and economically viable to pursue.”

The idea is pretty simple, really. Osborne realized that the weight of the cab of any cat is part of what sucks up so much gas. A typical snowcat is about 400 horsepower. But if you eliminate the cab and just add the snow-processing units to the sides you halve the power needed to run each additional unit: 200hp rather than 400hp. The math adds up to triple the coverage area for only twice the fuel. Osborne’s data says the EcoGroomer has the potential to save over 20 million gallons of diesel fuel at U.S. ski resorts by 2020.

Sounds good, but we wanted to ask Osborne for more specifics.

By the way, shortly after this interview, EcoGroomer announced that Monster Energy had come aboard as a sponsor. That seems to mean only crates of caffeinated sugar water, not startup money, however.

Wider is good, if you’re talking about big, wide slopes, blues and greens. But how could you get this thing on a single diamond, or just a narrower, mellow run?
 The EcoGroomer is designed to groom 60 to 70 percent of all pistes (essentially all blue and green runs). Traditional groomers will still handle the black runs.

What about slopes that are off camber?
You need to think of these side units as compact individual snowcats that can follow the terrain and adjust for off-camber slopes. These are essentially three snowcats directed by one operator. 

Aren’t a lot of folks going to be put out of work?

We are talking about 20 to 50 jobs per year attrition in North America from 2012-15 and most of these jobs are construction equipment operators who will go back to work building roads and housing developments as things pick up. Vail Resorts has a 20 percent turnover of grooming operators each year. They will just need to fill a few less next year and the following year and so on. This is a five-to-ten year transition to fully implement this technology. The experienced snowcat operators have nothing to worry about…the weaker ones will have to look elsewhere for employment in the coming years.  

And when will it go into production? Who’s building it?

Pisten Bully has quoted a six to eight-month time frame to build a basic prototype for proof of concept. We are in talks with a three equipment manufacturers in the Midwest to cut that down to three to four months. I would like to bring this to market sooner than the cat manufacturers would like. They are not used to revolutionary progress. I am somewhat of a rebel in their world. This is the crux of bringing new technology to market. Stay with the old manufacturers or bring it to market another way. We will see. This is going to happen, it is just a matter of with which manufacturer and how fast.  
 
This environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com. 

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{ 8 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Kim Kircher

    I’ve had my eye on the EcoGroomer for a few months now. My husband, who owns and operates ski areas, recently had a prospectus on his desk, and I took a look at it. It certainly does look possible. These machines could handle easy terrain, however many ski areas have narrow roads and cat tracks. Our sno-cats are stowed at night in the shop, which is accessed by a pretty narrow road through the trees. These machines would not be able to cruise along cat tracks, which are, at best two cat-widths wide. This could be problematic for some operations. However, the easier terrain in the base area might be able to accommodate them. Sno-cats need to be powerful to operate the tillers. With three tillers to one machine, I wonder if they will need a larger engine, which will, in turn, use more fuel. Perhaps, someone should work on a better, more efficient tiller. Maybe we could all go retro and bring back the roller or the rake-like tillers of the past?

  • EcoGroomer

    Kim,

    Thanks for the post. The side units will be retractable behind the cat to fit on the access roads/cat tracks. Each side unit has it’s own smaller engine that will run the tillers. Many resorts and sponsors are getting behind this effort I am happy to say. Appreciate your interest.

    Dan Osborne

  • Nate Gardner

    Definitely interesting. I work at an East Coast ski resort. Typically our trails are a little tighter than most, but I can think of several areas of our resort where this might fit. Even if this first plan doesn’t come to fruition it’s folk like EcoGroomer that start to push the envelope on traditional thinking that leads to new concepts down the road. I passes this article on to my boss, the Director of Mt. Recreation. Certainly I will keep an eye on this.

  • Kim Kircher

    Dan,
    Thanks for your response. That makes perfect sense. I should have figured you would have that covered. Glad to know there’s interest. Also, I like what you say about pushing the manufacturing forward. The ski industry has only a few suppliers–this goes for lifts, cats, etc. A little competition is always a good thing.
    Regards,
    Kim

  • Kim Kircher

    Steve,
    Back before he bought his first Tucker Sno-cat, my late father-in-law used to make people side step up the hill before he would sell them a $5 lift ticket. That way the powder could get tamped down so they could ski. From today’s perspective, that seems crazy. But back then, moguls were the bane of the operation. Once they formed, the skiing turned, well, you know. Either you love moguls or you don’t. Nothing like a powerful PistonBully to knock down a field of those pesky things. The way I look at it, moguls aren’t natural either.

  • anthony schwartz

    Hi, Ecogroomer I’m a Ski Area Management graduate and I like the ideas shown here but, in order to purchase these do you have to buy a whole new groomer? or can you just buy the side and or front implements? this is going to be a big question in the projected sales of these considering many ski resorts already have very expensive groomers in use and, with the projected loss of grooming jobs do you think that the ski resorts will save enough money with your equipment to raise the pay of the groomers that are left? considering it will create more work for the groomer to operate four implements instead of two and considering grooming position will be more desirable.

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