A father-son project in a Roaring Fork Valley garage aims to electrify the snowmobile industry
Greg Hoffman and his teenage son Connor are becoming a pretty powerful combination, harnessing their dual energy to make their own electric snowmobile.
The elder Hoffman is a master electrician who has worked for years at Snowmass Ski Area fixing snowmobiles and other on-mountain equipment. The 16-year-old Connor mixes in his thirst for knowledge about electric vehicles (in between playing basketball at Basalt High School, skiing and strumming guitar).
Greg Hoffman spent the past few years working with a group of Canadian engineers trying to develop a mass-produced electric sled. The effort was suddenly stymied by a once-in-a-century pandemic, so he began venturing down the path of making his own. And as a bonus, it has become a unique father-son project.
Hoffman, head of the lift maintenance operations for Aspen Skiing Co. for more than a decade, has been consulting with the Montreal-based Taiga Motors, a company founded by a trio of college classmates who have zeroed in on battery-powered machines.
After a successful trip to test their latest prototype at Snowmass in March 2020, the weekend the pandemic shut down the mountain, the guys from Taiga raced home to Canada and have since slowed production.
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Now, with his son at his side in the garage and breakfast table of their Missouri Heights home and a modest budget funded by Skico, Holy Cross Energy and the Community Office of Resource Efficiency (CORE), Hoffman is taking a run at the idea.
A Frankensled, if you will.
“We’re not duplicating anything Taiga does. They have some good ideas and we have ideas of our own and didn’t want to copy it in any way,” Hoffman said recently as he awaited parts for the Hoffman sled version 1.0. “They’re friends of mine.”
On March 14, 2020, after a full day of testing, the Hoffmans and the team from Taiga had dinner at Taster’s Pizza in Snowmass and discussed where they might go as the pandemic bore down on North America.
“We told them Connor wanted to build an electric snowmobile when we were at dinner before they had to leave,” Hoffman said. “We want to do it for knowledge and thought it would be a really cool father-son project.”
While there was an unsettling buzz in the air on what would be the last day of ski season 2019-20, Snowmass was eerily quiet.
Zipping around a closed section of trail below the Campground lift and then off the Big Burn on the edge of Sneaky’s run, the groundbreaking prototype of a Taiga electric snowmobile unassumingly went on test laps.
The next day, the entire mountain sat silent.
While those March 14 test runs were followed hours later by the governor’s mandated shutdown of the Colorado ski industry, it also meant weeks of unfettered laps on the latest pre-production prototype of a battery-powered sled.
As Hoffman spent the next few days quietly racing around the mountain on the machine, the team from Taiga scurried home. They were supposed to take their machines on a demo tour of U.S. resorts, but that plan was cut short.
Hoffman spent the next few weeks in March on a wide-open mountain and then a local ranch his family tends, putting the machine to the test in a number of scenarios.
“When the governor said they were going to shut down for the season, we put the machine on a trailer and took it to a ranch that we care take in the winter time and ran it up there,” Hoffman said. “We had the only one running in all of North America, so they were relying on us for feedback. We ran it through some pretty good tests.”
When the Taiga crew got home, they were still able to monitor the state-of-the-art sled remotely and download data as Hoffman put the sled through steep climbs and downhills to challenge the regenerative braking, testing towing capacity and pushing the battery longevity and reliability.
He and Connor “rebuilt some stuff” at their shop at home (mainly around the suspension), took it back out, tinkered with it a bit more, then after about a month sent the machine back to Canada for refining.
On that March morning, Sam Bruneau, who along with two college classmates founded Taiga in 2015, was a proud inventor.
“We were here two years ago with the really first rough model and got some great feedback,” Bruneau said as he and co-founder Gabriel Bernatchez rode up the Big Burn lift. “To be able to implement it and show how far this sled has progressed is great. … It’s pretty exciting to see the difference between the first time we were here and being back.”
The ensuing month of testing in Snowmass after the shutdown helped identify some of the challenges of the inner workings of the developing machine, which had been tested on flatter areas but not put through the wringer of day-to-day, up-and-down work at 10,000 feet-plus.
WAITING FOR THE CHANGES
This garage project is something that fits in Connor’s wheelhouse, his father said of the young “electric car fanatic.”
When he was 13, Connor wrote a program for the Alpine Coaster at Snowmass to detect cars coming into the bottom unload area too fast, setting off an alarm and an alert display in the operations building, Greg said. It is now used every day to manage guests who don’t apply the brakes soon enough, he said.
“I’m a master electrician and have a degree in electronics, so I understand this stuff,” Greg said. “Connor is a super-smart kid. … (Tinkering with the e-snowmobile) will be a good learning process.”
They were hoping to get an updated Taiga sled by the end of January to work on, but that didn’t come to fruition because of a production slowdown, Greg explained.
With no machine expected, he and Connor jumped on the chance to fire up their project. They went to Skico with the idea and a budget, then pushed to get other local energy companies involved.
With a pitch to help fund parts, the Hoffmans put the plan into motion beginning with a frame and suspension from a worn out Skico snowmobile.
The biggest challenge, they said, is making their own battery system for a sled that will run at high altitude in extreme weather. And finding the right way to control the battery temperature — not too hot when it’s running, not freezing its cells when it’s not — is another chapter in the process.
“We spent the last three weeks designing things,” Hoffman said recently. “Battery charger, battery manager system, converter. … If we’re going to do this we want to do it right and build something that will last for a long time and not cobbled together with minimum parts.”
Connor has made the battery-pack design to fit into the former fuel tank and toolbox areas of the sled, which they pulled from Skico’s boneyard. They’re now working on how to retrofit the new power source to the old sled.
“The majority of batteries are in a toolbox area (under the seat), but the rest of the cells are in the old gas tank,” Connor said. “It’s cool to reuse the gas tank. One, because we’re not going to throw it away, and two, it still looks like a normal snowmobile.
“So, we cut the gas tank, and Dad made the enclosure from old gondola windows … another area of reuse.”
Chris Bilby, a research and program engineer with Holy Cross Energy, has a background in electric vehicles and battery work. Nearly 10 years ago, he worked a summer at Snowmass for Hoffman.
When the first prototype came from Canada, Bilby got an invite to test it out. As the project has evolved, Bilby and Holy Cross got involved. He has been personally consulting with the Hoffmans on engineering the sled, while the utility company has provided some funding.
“It’s been a fantastic story to watch as it grows,” Bilby said. “When Connor fires up that sled for first time, it will be great to see the look on his face.”
That could be as early as the end of February now that Connor and Greg have received just about all the parts they’ve ordered and are stepping into high gear.
“We are community-facing, and we like projects like this,” Bilby said of Holy Cross. “And for Connor to say, ‘If someone’s not going to get it here, I’ll take a run at it and make one of my own,’ it’s courageous. I love it.”
Because of fallout from the pandemic around the world, Taiga Motors faced supply-chain issues and is holding off on starting mass production. They have back orders for hundreds of machines once they get going on full-scale production, but in the meantime they continue to work on fine-tuning the sled and putting out a few more.
“Aspen is kind of the reference around this electrification of snowmobiling, so I know Greg has been getting a lot of calls from our potential testing,” Bruneau said.
Yes, Hoffman said last week, they have been.
As word spread the past few years of the prototypes and the demo tour canceled, Hoffman said people have been wondering of late what’s up with the battery-powered snowmobiles. With the production change, Hoffman said they decided to go all-in on completing their local version.
“Once we get this built, then when we make the next one we can do it in half the time,” Hoffman said. “And then build one for each of the mountains and we won’t have to wait for them.”
Bilby added the idea of electric sleds is a more in harmony with the mountain culture than the current fleet of gas-guzzlers. Quiet, clean-air sleds are not far away. And, in time, it won’t be just snowmobiles.
“I look forward to the day when I go to hike the bowl and see an electric snowcat up there,” he said. “We’re not that far away, really. And it will be people like Connor who do it.”
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This weekend we go local. After the bacchanalia that was the Food & Wine Classic last week, we turn to Snowmass for a kinder, gentler wine gathering as the 19th Snowmass Wine Festival gets underway.