Eaglecrest's BIG RED MACHINE

Ski area aims to offer better-groomed runs with new snow cat

Posted: Sunday, October 23, 2005

Tony Florendo is looking forward to driving up and down slick hills this winter. And the more it snows, the better.

"It's going to be a blast," he said in front of the new snow cat he'll be driving to groom ski runs at the Eaglecrest Ski Area.

The snow cat, which arrived in Juneau last week, should help make Eaglecrest a blast for more skiers and snowboarders, General Manager Kirk Duncan said.

Eaglecrest has 31 named runs, in a range of difficulties for beginning to advanced skiers. Duncan said the new snow cat is equipped to groom the steeper runs to make them more attractive to the higher-intermediate and advanced skiers, as well as less advanced skiers looking for more challenging experiences.

"This will open up more of the mountain," said Jeff Brown, who heads up Eaglecrest maintenance operations.

About 22 percent of Juneau's population skis or snowboards, Duncan said. He compared that to Seattle, where the figure would be about 8 percent. He expects the new snow cat to make more of the mountain attractive to more people, more of the time.

Snow falling on some of the peaks around Eaglecrest provides a reminder that winter sports aren't far off. Duncan said Eaglecrest is shooting for a mid-December opening, but it's all about getting enough snow.

The bright red $278,000 German-built Pisten Bully is still in the garage with that new monster-snow-vehicle smell clinging in its cab, which shares aspects to the cockpit of an airplane.

The seat belts are elaborate harnesses, and there is a control yoke where the steering wheel should be. Different types of joysticks at the driver's right operate the machinery in the front and back that will till and grade the runs. Its lights are designed to cut through the dark and fog.

It runs on ice-cleat-equipped tracks instead of wheels. Buttons operate the winch, which rotates 360 degrees and will make it possible to go up and down the runs at severe angles.

"What makes it different is the winch mounted on it," Brown said. "We were looking for a (replacement) snow cat anyway. The winch was about a $68,000 add-on."

He said he expects the addition to make a big difference in the way people look at the mountain.

The winch, with 3,000 feet of cable, will allow this machine to climb up hills that other groomers haven't been able to climb and descend under control in places where other heavy machinery would be at the mercy of gravity, he explained.

The cable will run between the winch on the snow cat to the top of the hill to help pull it up and guide it down, he said.

Ideally, the runs are groomed every night "to make a smooth surface for skiers and snowboarders," Brown said. It's a matter of tilling up the snow and smoothing it out.

In practice, it hasn't worked out that way.

"The advance terrain is typically steeper," he said. That means advanced skiers and snowboarders will come out for fresh snow - "the powder everyone wants" - but aren't inspired to come out after the people enjoying the powder have left the runs "torn up," Brown added.

Sometimes rain can come after that, freezing ruts and leaving ice on the steeper runs where Eaglecrest staff can't till and smooth the surface, making them even more difficult to use, he said.

"They never get skied," Brown said. "Now we'll be able to groom them very nicely."

Better conditions on the steeper slopes also will make them more desirable to people advancing in their downhill sports, he explained. Better grooming on the steeper runs will make them more inviting for people to try them out to get more enjoyment from their Eaglecrest experience.

Not that the people who already enjoy a more extreme skiing and snowboarding experience will be left out, Jeffra Clough, Eaglecrest's marketing director, said. The two bowls that advanced downhill enthusiasts use will remain ungroomed.

Winch-equipped snow cats have been used successfully elsewhere. Last season, when Eaglecrest was shopping for a new groomer, Kssbohrer, the German company that makes Pisten Bully all-terrain vehicles, paid for people from Juneau to see its winch equipment in action at ski resorts farther south.

"This could allow Eaglecrest to open with less snow," Duncan said. The big red machine could push machine-made snow up the runs.

Eaglecrest has some ability to produce machine-made snow, but it has had limited ability to cover runs with it.

"We'll have more people using more of the mountain," Brown said. "This is a world class (ski area) for a city to have. I don't know if people realize what they have here."

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

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