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Leading the (snow)pack

Jon Maletz

December’s unveiling of Deep Temerity ” a 180-acre expansion of Steeplechase and Highland Bowl ” has brought smiles to skier faces for nearly a month.

While the initial response has been promising, the project has had its share of major hurdles. Chief among them was a need to devise a strategy to pack and secure snow on a drastically larger expanse of expert terrain.

Skico’s unusual, yet practical solution: a winch cat.

“This winch cat is part of the mechanical compaction program we are trying this year,” Highlands mountain manager Ron Chauner said Thursday. “With the addition of Deep Temerity, we needed something to supplement our human compaction.”

Chauner acknowledged traditional bootpacking efforts ” an estimated 25 people participated in this year’s six- week preseason program ” would be impractical, so managers and patrollers enlisted the help of Kassbohrer All Terrain Vehicles Inc., which manufactures PistenBully winch cats.

“Typically over history you give people season passes to walk and pack the bowl,” said Terry Fix, PistenBully’s Grand Junction branch manager said. “It’s just not as safe a pack. The studs aren’t as easy to come by these days.”

Skico, who bought to cats from PistenBully earlier this year for use on Ajax and Snowmass, approached the company in early September, Fix said. A rental agreement was struck in early November; it runs until today.

“While this certainly is a trial thing, we saw this as the answer to their problem,” said Fix, who helped train ski patrollers to operate the machine.

The two said they modeled their plan after a similar set of circumstances in Telluride, where a roller attached to the winch cat was lowered into the Prospect Bowl. The roller, when pulled up and down the slope ” a motion similar to painting ” breaks up and compacts the layers of snow, stabilizing the early snow pack.

A 2,800 lb. roller designed to mimic the slope angles of the Highland Bowl was specifically created for the project, Fix said. The winch on the PistenBully 300 W model is capable of pulling up to four tons.

The cat, powered by a six-cylinder, 330-horsepower Mercedes-Benz engine, has a boom attached to its top, which rotates 360 degrees in order to move the roller across the slope, Fix said. It is capable of winching the roller at a maximum speed of 10.5 mph.

Positioning the cat atop the bowl was perhaps the project’s greatest challenge. “It was pulled out by the gentlest rout we could find, but it was all experimental,” Chauner said.

The cat winched itself short distances at a time as a crew of three moved the cable from tree to tree, pulling out slack in the cable before attaching it to the next anchor point, Chauner said. The entire process took three days.

The roller was first used on the mountain’s front side to pack The Wall as well as much of Steeplechase.

“On those steep pitches, we found that this particular technique was very viable and will work,” Chauner said.

While the project has had its share of unspecified mechanical issues, Chauner cannot argue with the numbers. A comparison of skier visits between Dec. 22 and Jan. 3 for this season and last revealed a 26 percent increase. Collectively, Skico resorts had a 10 percent rise.

Mechanical compaction on expert terrain ” in its infancy ” is a concept that will continue to evolve, Chauner says. Highlands will be tracking the progress eagerly, eyeing new technology to transform the ski area.

“It’s nice to work with a company that has the right machine and is willing to go through the evolution,” Chauner said. “Mechanical compaction is certainly a new sort of venture and one everyone is trying to figure out. There is demand for it with ski areas that have hike-to terrain and inbounds backcountry skiing.”

“To take a ski area and change the face of it is cause for celebration.”

Fix is confident the bond between PistenBully and Highlands will continue to grow. While he would not divulge the specific numbers on record, Fix did say the company gave Highlands a good deal on the rental. The machines retail for $250,000.

There was more to the arrangement than money, Fix said. As the first company to embark into winch cat production, PistenBully had the opportunity to prove its functionality in a real-life situation. With success, monetary dividends will not be far behind.

Fix will, however, feel better about everything, however, after today is over.

“I’m just nervous about how they’re gonna get it down,” he said.

Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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