Snowcat manufacturers are responding to the needs of their customers with more efficient, sustainable grooming machines and improved software and training tools. Early in the days of the commercial ski industry, the skiing surface was at the mercy of Mother Nature, topography, and previous skier traffic (and maybe the occasional boot packing efforts of dedicated staff). Choppy snow, unwieldy rollers, inconveniently placed moguls: these were part of the sport. Then along came grooming, from the Bradley Packer up to today’s technologically advanced snowcats. Skiers of the modern era have come to expect nothing short of seamless corduroy and smooth carving across a significant portion of any ski area’s acreage. While the salient elements of 21st century grooming tech haven’t changed dramatically—namely: the flex tiller and 12-way blade, driven by a powerful snowcat—the technological advances are real and tangible, as are the manufacturers’ increased presence in operator and management training and consultation, and software development to further refine the science and complement the art of slope grooming. THE MACHINES PRINOTH PRINOTH’s lineup includes the Husky, Bison, and Leitwolf. A recent focus on fleet unification means that the 2023 Husky now includes the PRINOTH Control Unit as its standard interface, with a 12-inch touchscreen, multifunction joystick, and an improved ergonomic layout, aligning it with the Bison and Leitwolf. Dubbed the “New Bison” and “New Leitwolf,” the current generation of machines offer improved power and torque in an efficient RPM band, reducing fuel consumption. Service and maintenance accessibility are also improved with the new Stage V platform. In North America, the Caterpillar C9.3-powered 422 hp Bison remains the top seller for PRINOTH. The Bison is available with the Automatic winch, designed to provide neutral handling at all angles with a pulling force up to 4.5T. The Bison X model is designed with terrain parks in mind, outfitted with the Park blade and tiller for increased range of motion. Inclinometers for the machine and blade are built-in, along with a sliding swivel seat, distance meter, improved LED lights, and rearview camera. PRINOTH reports increasing interest in the larger and more powerful Leitwolf, which offers better pushing performance and production with its 530 hp MTU inline six-cylinder engine that delivers more than 1,900 ft-lb of torque. The Leitwolf also features an adjustable suspension for increased control in varying conditions and PRINOTH’s patented parallel tiller offset. The Leitwolf is also available with the Automatic winch and the X park package. PRINOTH’s head of product portfolio management, Andreas Muigg, says the burgeoning interest in the Leitwolf isn’t limited to large resorts. Smaller ski areas are finding that the greater working speed and production per shift can help cover large areas quickly, especially useful for areas that need to finish the job in a single shift. The Bison and Leitwolf are both available with two tiller options. The Power tiller provides intensive processing of the snow, producing a durable surface. The Posiflex tiller shines in harder snow conditions. Its ability to carry more snow in the snow chamber is also known for forgivingly producing a smooth surface, even when blading is not, shall we say, optimally executed. PISTENBULLY At PistenBully, the workhorse lineup includes the 100, 400, and 600 models. The machines sport a common operating platform and interface and an ergonomic layout, allowing easy operator transition between models. To augment this platform, all current PistenBully machines now share a common electric and hydraulic architecture, streamlining maintenance and parts across the fleet, reports PistenBully marketing coordinator JP Wirtz. The “New PistenBully 400” increases from 400 hp to 435 hp. Its Cummins L9 engine offers nearly 1,400 ft-lb of torque. Improved power-to-weight ratio delivers better climbing performance, and PistenBully’s AutoTracer feature provides automatic tiller steering while turning and counter-steering on sidehills, reducing operator workload and improving the final product. PistenBully’s AlpineFlexTiller is the standard option for all snow conditions; it has an aggressive tooth pattern, shock-absorbers, hydraulic flex lock, and finishing outriggers that provide what PistenBully calls the “windscreen wiper system” to ensure seamless passes and terrain alignment. For higher production, the PistenBully 600 offers more power at a similar fuel consumption to the 400. The standard “Polar” package in North America delivers 512 hp and around 1,700 ft-lb of torque from its Cummins X12 power plant. In addition to the AutoTracer feature, the patented SlopeTracer function can automatically adjust tiller depth to optimally prepare the surface. Both the 400 and 600 models are available with PistenBully’s AutoWinch (4.0T for the 400, or 4.6T for the 600), which provides automatic winch force control, ensuring effective winching operations. Wirtz notes that winches—while commonly associated with steep terrain grooming—are also useful for low angle terrain when pushing out snowmaking and building parks, reducing stress on the machine and snow. The ParkPro package for the 400 or 600 provides a greater range of motion for front and rear implements. The ParkPro models offer a ProBlade, which allows the operator to lay the traditional corduroy pattern while backblading, side cutters and edges for shaping, and a one-touch straight-blade function. The ProFlexTiller sports expanded flex angles, lighting, freeze function, onboard camera, and other features geared toward terrain park building and maintenance. EMISSIONS UPDATE PRINOTH’s Clean Motion philosophy takes emissions seriously, demonstrated by the company’s early adoption of Euro Stage V standards in 2019. According to Muigg, all of PRINOTH’s new machines across the globe meet these standards as of last year. At PistenBully, Wirtz reports that all current models also meet Euro Stage V standards, which reduces soot pollution by 40 percent vs. the EPA’s Tier 4 standard. PistenBully expects carbon-neutral technology to push innovation in the industry and is prepared to meet any EPA Tier 5 standards as soon as they arrive. THE RACE FOR ZERO EMISSIONS Zero-emission grooming is a goal of both manufacturers, but it cannot happen overnight. Instead, it will be a gradual iterative process of innovation, testing alternative fuels, and implementing the latest electric technologies. PRINOTH’s Leitwolf h2Motion is a hydrogen-based machine being tested in two forms. The zero-emission fuel-cell version, which creates electricity in hydrogen fuel cells to power a 544 hp electric motor, debuted for testing in 2020. The newer zero-carbon 460 hp hydrogen internal-combustion-engine (ICE) version entered testing in September 2022. The h2Motion won’t be market-ready for a few more years, as testing continues and the associated challenges of hydrogen availability and handling in the ski resort environment are addressed. While the efficiency of hydrogen is real—its energy density is about three times that of diesel—the availability challenges are equally real. Hydrogen must be harvested through processes like photoelectrochemical water splitting and electrolysis. Infrastructure challenges notwithstanding, an h2Motion ICE model was used at a recent World Cup event in Austria. As production and availability improve, hydrogen could become a key fuel for slope grooming. Bottom line from Muigg: “When the ski resorts are ready, we have the vehicle ready.” For fully zero-emission machines, electricity is the key. PistenBully began to address zero emissions in 2012 with the debut of the 600 E+ hybrid machine. Mirroring proven locomotive technology, the 600 E+ uses a diesel engine to power an electric drivetrain. The hybrid tech is in its second generation, and Wirtz teases, “we are working to develop the third generation 600.” The current offering promises to reduce fuel consumption, noise, and CO2 emissions by up to 20 percent. The groundbreaking PistenBully 100 E was the world’s first fully electric snowcat. It hit the slopes for testing in 2019 but is not yet on the market. It can charge completely in 6.5 hours and provide instant torque over about a three-hour operating time. Its small footprint and nimble maneuverability make it ideal for Nordic trails and precision work in small spaces. PRINOTH’s fully electric Husky eMotion is currently in the U.S. A 245 hp electric motor offers 738 ft-lb of torque for a working time of up to three hours. At just over 13 ft wide, the Husky eMotion is also well suited for cross-country applications and on-mountain areas where the smaller size and flexibility are needed. Battery technology is the major limiting factor for electric snowcats. As that technology improves over the next decade, expect both PistenBully and PRINOTH to capitalize on these advances to drive the industry closer to emissions-free grooming. MORE DIESEL ALTERNATIVES Another option for lower carbon fuels is hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO), also known as “renewable diesel” or “green diesel.” PRINOTH’s fleet at the FIS World Ski Championship in Åre, Sweden, was powered by HVO. The Jungholz Ski Resort in Austria successfully powered its fleet of PistenBully snowcats with HVO for the entire 2021-22 season. Like biodiesel, HVO is a low-carbon fuel derived from lipids such as cooking oils. Unlike biodiesel, however, the hydrotreatment process results in a fuel much more chemically similar to regular diesel fuel. It can be run in 100 percent concentration or blended at any ratio with diesel fuel. With its very low carbon content and resistance to bacterial growth, HVO is a viable low-emissions alternative fuel. Most diesel engines can run on HVO without any modifications. However, HVO does deliver slightly lower energy density, and it is not readily available. That’s changing—as of January 2023, production was increasing in the U.S., and there were at least 100 stations offering HVO. Gas-to-Liquid (GTL) fuel, a synthesis of natural gas, hydrogen, and carbon monoxide, which is then liquified under high temperature, is another option. This process creates a variety of final products, including a synthetic diesel fuel. Chemically, GTL is very similar to regular diesel fuel, and like HVO can be used in most diesel engines without modification. GTL burns cleaner than diesel and combusts better under low temperatures, and like HVO is not prone to bacterial growth. Downsides: a lower energy density than regular diesel fuel, requiring about 6 percent more fuel to do the same work; plus, GTL does not cause expansion of rubber seals like diesel fuel, meaning older engines may develop more leaky seals. SOFTWARE Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of a slope grooming program doesn’t end with the machine itself. PRINOTH and PistenBully both offer software systems for snow and fleet management. The savings and efficiencies can be seen at resorts of almost any size as they carefully manage snowmaking water output, fleet maintenance, and grooming operations decisions. PRINOTH Connect offers a suite of fleet management tools. Muigg touts a payoff as soon as year one for an average ski resort through fuel reduction alone. Patterns, RPM range, logs, and much more can be tracked and analyzed to improve efficiency and accelerate the learning curve for new operators. Managers can view all of this data from the office and communicate valuable information to the operators. The Snow Measurement tool provides live snow depth data through triangular meshing, giving accurate measurements under the blade and tracks. Snow depth is displayed in the machine and is also viewable through the Fleet Management system, giving operators and managers alike the data they need to maintain ideal snow placement. PistenBully’s SNOWsat is in use across 350 resorts comprising about 2,700 machines. Its Fleet module can be used to manage any sort of machinery or vehicles, from ATVs to bulldozers to snowcats. Pattern analysis, fuel consumption, vehicle data, position data, and more are at the fingertips of managers to analyze and tweak for optimal efficiency. Other modules available in the SNOWsat suite include a comprehensive maintenance platform, a ToDo application for planning and managing tasks, GIS integration, and snow management. New this year, SNOWsat now offers LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology, which collects up to 200,000 data points per second, providing real-time measurement of snow depth up to 165 feet in front of the machine on a surface up to 28,000 sq ft. This information allows operators to plan ahead, getting the snow exactly where it needs to go. TRAINING Operator training plays a major role in the quality and efficiency of any grooming program, and directly impacts operator retention. Well-trained operators create ideal skiing surfaces efficiently, and cat operators who see their resort investing in their training and competence are more likely to stick around. PRINOTH and PistenBully have both taken this to heart. The PRINOTH Academy provides a suite of online and in-person training for operators, all offered at basic, advanced, and expert levels. A test at the end of each level ensures that the student has mastered the material. Operators earn a certificate after finishing the course, documenting their proficiency in machine knowledge, slope preparation, vehicle handling, correct winch use, terrain park use, and more. Similar training programs are available for mechanics to increase their knowledge, hone their skills, and reduce downtime. The ProAcademy, PistenBully’s comprehensive operator and mechanic training program, also seeks to create precision operators and highly skilled mechanics. To expand its online learning opportunities, Wirtz says PistenBully has begun implementing resort-specific portals, giving more employees access to the training materials. Offering training both online and face-to-face, ProAcademy employs various levels of training that build on each other, and training can start at the individual level of each student. PRINOTH and PistenBully also offer consultation for resort-specific needs. THE FINAL PRODUCT In the final analysis, it comes down to this: The modern snowcat is designed blade-to-tiller to provide skiers and riders with the best possible snow surface in the most efficient and sustainable way possible. Both manufacturers place great emphasis on responding to the real needs of their customers, including hot-button issues like hiring, training, retention, snow surface quality, and sustainability.