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Snowcat: PistenBully in a self-experiment

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T he clock strikes four. It will soon be dark in Kühtai. The wind blows icy and drives the first skiers to a warm hotel or to the yeast dumpling competition in the next hut. But when the fox and the ski bunny say goodnight, there are no dead pants in the powder snow paradise. An insect state of caterpillars scurries through the white splendor and plows the chaos that thousands of skiers and snowboarders have created. After all, the highest winter sports resort in Austria advertises with perfectly groomed slopes.

Nine tons, finely distributed by the chains

Every evening Konrad Witsch and his colleagues from Bergbahnen Kühtai have to whip more than 40 kilometers of slopes into shape. As soon as the last lift stops operating, it starts. The shift usually lasts until half past ten, and overtime is not uncommon. Witsch's work tool is a Kässbohrer Pisten-Bully. The P300 measures more than ten meters from the front shovel to the dozer blade and weighs nine tonnes in full gear. Actually, it should sink like a stone in the loose powder snow. But even those who only took the chalk up in physics class know: If you distribute the weight well enough, there’s no problem. The huge chain belts distribute nine tons over such a large area that only the weight of a chicken egg per square centimeter rests on the snow.

The 330 hp diesel drives forward

We start the self-experiment. You climb the caterpillar's command post via the 1.5 meter wide chains. Big eyes: so many buttons! After all, the Kässbohrer Pisten-Bully has a kind of steering wheel. It looks like the control horn of a Cessna. The heating is running at full speed, the Jagertee is steaming in the cup holder and 330 diesel horsepower is buzzing with anticipation. Konrad Witsch, the Tyrolean with the weather-beaten face and a passionate snow groomer operator, keeps watch in the passenger seat. Witsch is also a snow master and takes care of the snow cannons in Kühtai.

'Well hopp, let's go,' shouts Witsch. For our first attempts at driving, he chose a flat slope where there are currently no skiers - better safe than sorry. The left hand grasps the control horn used to operate the chains. A snowcat steers like a tank to the right or left by moving the tracks at different speeds. The right hand rests on the two most important levers of theCrawler: One controls the front shovel, the other controls the roller and the dozer blade at the rear. The milling shaft grinds the snow, including the bits of ice, so finely that the dozer blade only has to smooth it. The perfect ski slope is ready.

But we are still a long way from that. When you step on the gas pedal, the caterpillar jacks up and jerks off. The first pull on the control horn is much too hard - the Bully turns almost on the spot. 'A little more feeling', warns Konrad Witsch. The caterpillar only needs very gentle movements at the wheel to go into the curve. At the same time, you have to be careful that the front shovel is always in the right position and that it does not eat too deeply or too shallowly in the snow. The harmonious deceleration also needs to be learned: As soon as you take your foot off the accelerator, the Bully stands like one - with almost no braking distance.

After a few laps you finally get the hang of it and become bolder. 'Take it easy amoal,' encourages Konrad Witsch. But at full throttle the corners of the mouth go down quickly despite 330 hp. Acceleration from walking pace is quite disappointing for speed freaks, and more than 23 km /h is not possible. Even the latest snow groomer models can hardly do more than 30 things. But the snow armor is not exactly intended for traffic light races.

Consumption is becoming more and more important for snowcat, too. 'Depending on the driving style, the caterpillar swallows between 20 and 25 liters per hour. If you always keep the engine between 1,100 and 1,200 revolutions, you consume the least,' says Konrad Witsch. Nevertheless, the caterpillar sniffs more than 200 liters per 100 kilometers - and is therefore still a saver in the kingdom of chain animals. A Leopard 2 tank easily accepts twice as much.

Up to 60 degrees inclination are possible

After an hour of leveling and pirouetting, we leave the controls to the professionals again, After all, Konrad Witsch still has dozens of kilometers of slopes in front of his chest. Even steep slopes do not deter a PistenBully - slopes of up to 60 degrees are possible if the ground is firm enough. In an emergency, the caterpillars pull themselves up the slope with a cable winch and slowly lower themselves down to level.

Incidentally, the alpine tank will soon be celebrating its 40th birthday. In 1969 the first 'caterpillar vehicle for preparing ski runs' by Kässbohrer went into series production.

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