The Future of Corduroy

Sunday River is famous for its crisp, straight, Zen garden-like corduroy. It’s reliable. It’s grippy. It’s fast. It’s highly difficult to maintain and very easy to screw up. It’s a way of life that Sunday River fans have come to know, love, and expect, day after day.

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And it’s entirely due to a small, dedicated crew of totally awesome guys and some really big machines.

After spending the last 24 years of my life taking an entire mountain covered in perfectly straight lines for granted, I was offered the chance of a lifetime: to go grooming with a guy who’s grown up grooming, whose dad also grooms for the mountain, and whose 6-year-old son already knows how to drive a snowcat (seriously–I’ve seen pictures). Chris Knight has eight seasons at Sunday River under his belt plus many, many more at other local mountains and makes operating a giant machine that vaguely resembles a space ship look as easy as breathing. He is quiet, tall, and has this way about him that made feel like no matter what breaks, he’s going to know how to fix it. I felt remarkably safe even as I clambered into the belly of a giant, powerful, mountain-crawling machine.

It’s probably because of Chris’ dedication to the mountain and to his career that he was chosen to operate the behemoth I was entering ever-so-gracefully: the PistenBully 600E+, a huge, bright green, snow-tilling machine. Sunday River had been demoing the machine all week, and its presence was causing quite a stir. After all, our normal cats are red, and this beast is a startling, electric green–which is ironic, because the machine itself is electric as well.

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PistenBully has created the world’s first snow groomer with a diesel-electric drive, and it’s 20% quieter, burns 20% less diesel, and emits 20% less nitrogen dioxide and carbon dioxide than a traditional snowcat.  It also cuts standard operating costs by, you guessed it, 20%, which is nothing to scoff at. During my pre-ride research, I found out that the 6-cylinder engine is actually manufactured by Mercedes-Benz, which makes this ride certifiably upper-class. Factor in the ergonomically-correct cockpit, the heated seats and windows, and the consistently high torque made available by the electric drive, and you’ve got yourself a powerful snowcat that more resembles a luxury vehicle than a ski mountain workhorse.

Once I was all settled in, Chris and I headed up Monday Mourning, then Upper Sunday Punch, did a little work at the top of the Locke Mountain Triple chairlift, and then down T2. None of these trails could be called flat, so I white-knuckled it for a bit until I got used to the feeling that we might flip over at any second. The 600E+’s giant plow, with delicately articulating wings, pushed massive amounts of snow around, the tiller chewed up and smoothed out some pretty roughly-treated terrain, and I barely swayed in my ergonomically-correct copilot seat the whole time. I was amazed: it really was like riding in the world’s most off-road-worthy high-end sedan. Chris was grinning as he manned the joystick and the crazy touchscreens displaying things like “inclinometers” in bright lights around the cockpit. He asked if I minded the radio and turned on a sound system that rivalled most I’ve heard–apparently, these machines have subwoofers under the seats.

Because the ride was so comfortable, I didn’t really grasp the power of the green monster until we prepped the corral for a race that was being held the next day. Chris dug the plow in to carve a flat surface out of a mountain of newly-made snow, and a giant pile cascaded over the top of the plow and onto our windshield. The cat didn’t even shudder. It was an awesome, slightly terrifying experience. Seriously, kids: don’t ever get in the way of one of these things.

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As we pushed mammoth heaps of snow around with steeze (that’s style and ease), Chris made a great comparison: because the 600E+ has such high torque, the power is there “from the get-go. It’s set up like a locomotive–it even kind of sounds like a train.” I could totally feel what he was talking about. When he decided (without warning) to show off the machine’s on-the-spot turning radius, I almost got whiplash as we whirled around on a crazy-steep headwall at the top of Monday Mourning. Since the machine has “100% gradeability,” meaning it can safely climb a pitch as steep as 45 degrees, we were perfectly safe. Tell that to my heart attack.

Once Chris was done simultaneously thrilling and scaring me silly, we headed back to base, triumphant and giggling (well…I was, anyway). After the world’s nicest handshake and a profuse “thank you so much!” on my part, Chris parked our giant green beast in the yard and climbed out to get his own cat and get some work done in peace. On the way out, he greeted someone heading toward us: by pure luck and coincidence, Josh Lempert, Pistenbully’s New England Rep, had chosen this night to take his company’s newest creation for a spin. I, being the tenacious (and slightly annoying) reporter that I am, decided to tag along for a ride with him and resumed my place in the cockpit.

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Josh has been with PistenBully for the last four years, and owned his own snowpark building company for the eight years prior to that. Before that? He was the Terrain Park Manager at Sunday River. This guy knows his stuff, and it was a treat to ride in such a high-end, cutting edge machine with a man who educates people about it for a living. He explained to me that the tiller the piece that creates those nice straight lines we call “corduroy”), which is normally hydraulic, is electric in the 600E+ and accounts for most of the machine’s power savings.

After an informative and awe-inspiring three-and-a-half hours spent riding around in the belly of the beast, I called it a night and Josh dropped me off at my car like a gentleman. I piled into my cold, dirty ’98 Nissan Altima and regretfully remembered the warm, cushy, spaceship interior of Sunday River’s borrowed gem. I wondered how much one of those things might go for. After spending half a night grooming in the lap of luxury, was it time for me to upgrade my ride?