Friday, August 21, 2009

Catching Up

In weather and climate science there's millions of data points to be captured, and understood before the Climate Scientists and their Computer Geeks can understand what they mean so they can massage all of it into useful tools for predicting daily weather or long range climate changes.

Meanwhile, every day young computer geeks invent another wizz-bang gadget or write the killer app that turns them into Silicon Valley Moguls with offshore bank accounts. Yahoo, Google, iPhone, Twitter...who knew? Last time I checked, cell phone Ring Tone sales were a multi-billion dollar industry! Wow...

But the weatherman's tools aren't so mercurial...their tools are evolved, not brainstormed like the consumer candies so lusted after by the technorati. Slowly at the glacial pace of government, the refinements are tested for efficacy, reliability, and stability before becoming another tool in the meteorologists' ever-growing toolbox. For these developers, the playing field isn't flat, it's an ever changing, undulating sea surface obscured from satellite surveillance by clouds and fog and even data-corrupting solar outbursts.

Grooming machines are evolving technology too...when I think about "My Cats" over the years, it's no less amazing to me than any of the latest consumer tech gear.

I refer to my machine as a Cat. The Cat name comes from the original Tucker Sno-Cat, the machine in which I first earned a groomer's paycheck behind the steering wheel. Yes, Tuckers had steering wheels...most Pisten Bullies have wheels today, but they're a far cry from the original Tucker Tech.

The Tuckers I learned my mountain in, were all 1970's vintage. Tuckers were like a cross between a WW1 biplane and a Jeep. The frames were hand-built tubular affairs, skinned with hand-formed riveted aluminum and painted CalTrans Orange. Ours were front engine Mopar V8 powered, and the drive was a traditional 4X4 system with the transmission coupled to a transfer case and driveshafts for and aft turning automotive differentials and axles to the pontoons or tracks.

We had two flavors of Tuckers, metal track and rubber track. The metal tracked cats had four lightweight sheet metal pontoons, one at each corner. Around the inside and outside perimeter of the pontoon a welded on track or raceway provided the running surface for lots of steel rollers to run around the pontoon supporting the pair of rollers at each end of every grouser. These rollers were cantilevered over the pontoon's raceways from the ends of every worked, but it was very delicate, and didn't take kindly to hitting anything hard in the snowpack like buried tree limbs, concealed stumps or rocks, and their service life, even without abuse was woefully short. If memory serves, each pontoon carried at least 60 rollers!

Steering the pontoons was a hydraulic system, with hydraulic rams steering both front and rear axles. Operators had to avoid turning the steering wheel when the vehicle wasn't moving. Doing so would always break something...the classic immovable object scenario. Because of the physics involved, the Tucker drive lines were special too, they were designed to twist a lot before failure, because they would often have to break a frozen layer between the pontoons and the snowpack, as all the play in the rollers and grousers loaded up and then lashed free...more trouble ahead...

All the headaches of all those rotating steel on steel parts were solved by the advent of the rubber track system. The Mountain had one rubber track Sno-Cat, a 1976 model. This cat didn't have very much in the way of suspension really, not like today's machines. There was some side to side flex in the belts, but no flexitors or bogey wheel suspension. Some of the operator thrones had suspension, but all in all, it was a rough ride.

The body was a single ply of aluminum sheet, uninsulated, though our mechanic glued commercial carpet to the inside of the skin wherever the frame allowed. There were no stereos, and back then the 2-Way Motorola radios were crystal controlled, single channel units...everybody on the mountain worked on a single frequency then. Groomers used Astral Tunes cassette players and headphones to quell the monotony of the V8 roar. The tunes were carried in a chest pack, the volume cranked, and all was right with the world...or so it seemed...Good Times!

Rolling Stock
There were no implements on the Sno-Cats then, everything that actually worked the snow surface was towed behind the Cats like a boat trailer! We had several varieties of "Rolling Stock"

For fresh snow, or packed powder, we pulled Plain Rollers in two widths, 13ft or 20ft wide.

As the surface firmed up, we would switch out the Plain Rollers for Mogul Cutters. These were 13ft rollers with a heavy frame mounted box blade in front of the roller. The blade was raised and lowered with a pair of small hydraulic rams. We'd set the blade to shear the tops of the moguls off, and the roller would compact the sheared-off snow into the troughs and leave a flat, dance floor-like surface. Some cutters were towed from the frame-mounted pintle hitch, and we had a "Gooseneck Cutter" that was towed 5th Wheel style from the deck-mounted pintle.

Trailing behind each roller, was a small diameter drag chain that stirred up some loose duff to cover imperfections and break-up the corrugated culvert pipe imprint of the roller. Stone age by today's standards.

Once the snow surface turned Spring-Like, we added "Powdermakers" and a huge Drag Chain to our arsenal. The Drag Chain was used to set-up the snow surface for the Powdermakers.

Once Ski Patrol finished their sweep of the mountain, two Swing Shift groomers driving Tuckers towing 13ft Rollers, would hook this Drag Chain between their respective Rollers. In tandem they would roll around the flatter, slushier ski runs to knock down all the sloppy ski tracks before the sun set, and the snow started to freeze. This took some coordination between the two operators, and some experience to judge when and where to start. Mostly this technique was employed on the "Home Runs"...the Easiest Way Down on the slopes with Western Exposures. The Drag Chain was really an Anchor Chain, the links were 3/4 of an inch in diameter and the links measured 4X6 inches in heavy lived at the base of the Mountain, and was marked with bamboo for guest safety.

Every time it snowed, the Drag Chain had to be dragged back up to the top of the pack, so it would be ready once the pack turned slushy. Every piece of Rolling Stock needed to be dug out too, following every new foot of snowfall, and repositioned atop freshly packed snow...every time. My memory is fortunately hazy, but the Drag Chain was pretty long, too...more than 50ft, maybe 80ft? A big hassle to dig up and move...that I do remember clearly!

Once the Drag Chain task was complete, the operators would drop their Rollers and hook up to Mogul Cutters and head for the steeper, bumped-up runs on the Work Orders...Nature was expected to pitch in, and freeze the spring-like runs where the Drag Chain had been deployed.

After the snowpack froze hard, and seemed frozen deeply enough, the Graveyard Crew would hook up the Powdermaker and re-roll the cut and dragged runs to make a little duff from the hard-frozen surface, and tho put a little "tooth" on the hard frozen pack. The Powdermaker was a heavy, wide implement, with several heavy, "reels" fashioned from stout expanded metal. Each reel had it's own frame linked to the other frames. The powdermaker was pretty cranky to operate, conditions needed to meet a certain threshold for best results, and handling the beast when doing anything other than moving forward was just asking for trouble.

The reels ride on the snow surface at an oblique angle to the direction of motion when they do their best grinding of the surface. Hydraulics controlled the Angle of Attack, or how aggressively the reels would grind. The reels could be aligned with the perpendicular, to facilitate easy towing and to minimize the dig-in factor. My Mountain had two of these had three reels, and the Dinosaur had a bunch of reels...six at least, maybe 8 or 9 all told.

You did your best to never get in a Back-Up situation with the Dinosaur. Backing-up that powdermaker often ended with a broken powdermaker, or a jumbled pile of reels that looked like hell.

Worse-Case scenario was when you misjudged the quality of the freeze. That's when the reels would break through the misjudged crust, and dig into soft, still wet snow just below. That's when the below-freezing reels picked up huge globs of slush that froze instantly to the expanded metal, creating a new implement...the "Lawsuit Maker"

A Frozen Powdermaker dug ugly, lumpy, random ruts wherever the operator dragged it...Shovel it off, and the snow would grab right back onto it, making newer, uglier ruts to fix. Once you were in this mess, you were toast, burnt weren't going to salvage a good shift from your predicament. No, you were going home, after messing with your awful mess for the better part of your last hour on the hill, with your head hung in shame.

I don't miss powdermakers one bit!

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