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Sports archive for January 23, 2013

The PistenBully: seeking the perfect trail

Dawn is still hours away from showing its first glimmers over the Yukon horizon when Jan Polivka fires up the PistenBully at the Whitehorse Cross-Country Ski Club early Monday morning.

By Marcel Vander Wier on January 23, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Dawn is still hours away from showing its first glimmers over the Yukon horizon when Jan Polivka fires up the PistenBully at the Whitehorse Cross-Country Ski Club early Monday morning.

The new PistenBully 100 purrs to life, ready to tackle another 25 km of trails.

The 32-year-old Polivka is the assistant manager and grooming co-ordinator at the ski club, and is one of two with the certification to get behind the controls of the big red machine.

The more experienced Rudy Sudrich taught him everything he knows, Polivka admits quickly.

Polivka gently guides the groomer onto the trail for another eight-hour ride along Mount McIntyre. Despite the darkness, he is comfortable with the route ahead of him.

“We follow a similar pattern every day,” he explains of the path ahead. “We want to have the perfect trail. So we have to be consistent.”

The PistenBully rumbles ahead at a speed of six or seven kilometers an hour. Well-worn tracks are driven over and reappear looking clean and new.

A plow on the front allows Polivka to eliminate snowdrifts that may accumulate overnight. The tiller at the back of the machine mixes the snow, leaving a fresh trail for skiers to dig into. The ultimate conditions for skiers come about an hour and a half after the PistenBully has cut a trail, and the snow has hardened, Polivka says.

Prime grooming temperature is -10 C, while anything past -30 C means the PistenBully isn’t working.

“The easiest way to groom is to copy the old track,” Polivka says of his technique, admitting the hardest moments come after a large snowfall. “It can get hard to read the trails.”

Skiing the trails after a groom can help eliminate mistakes and provides the best learning moments for an operator, he admits.

“We are easily eight hours out there,” Polivka says. “But this is my dream job, besides tennis.”

It’s a fairly quiet ride so early in the day, but by 5:30 a.m., Polivka has come across skiers getting in a morning ski before work.

He’s also seen his share of animal tracks on Selwyn’s Loop, which requires two passes of the PistenBully for a full groom. Moose, wolf, and coyote tracks have all made their mark on the fresh snow.

While the PistenBully can cover a lot of ground in the morning hours, skidoos fitted with various grooming implements continue to be powered by volunteers on more narrow trails.

“Our volunteers are doing a great job,” Polivka said. “We have such great skiers.

They give us feedback, and we will think about their comments a lot. We often tweak our grooming patterns on their advice.”

The $192,000 PistenBully arrived in Whitehorse in October, said ski club operations manager Mike Gladish.

It is the third PistenBully in the club’s history. While the new machine has some new “bells and whistles,” it is the same model as the the previous machine.

While Lotteries Yukon and the Community Development Fund were the bulk funders of the new machine – each chipping in $59,300, the local ski club also completed a special fund-raising effort that saw them raise over $12,000.

Club members have donated money when signing up for memberships, and a variety of events including ski-waxing fund-raisers have also helped the cause.

The rest of the funds came via a trade-in of the old PistenBully machine – a value of $57,500, and $10,000 from an equipment reserve fund the club had built up over several years.

The PistenBully hit the local trails for the first time in mid-November.

“We need about a 10 cm packed base before we’ll take the PistenBully out, because we don’t want it hitting rocks or chewing up dirt,” Gladish explained.

“It’s our number one tool,” he added. “We’ve also got several snowmachines and smaller implements that we pull … and that’s pretty much all done by volunteers.

So we could function without it, but the product that we get from the PistenBully – you can’t beat it. People are much happier when the PistenBully’s been out grooming over the other machines.”

Gladish said the work of three volunteers out for three hours each on the snowmachines can be done in just one hour by the PistenBully.

The new machine’s usage varies with cold temperatures and snowfall, but with local club membership as high as 1,300, it is often out grooming every morning.

Gladish said ski clubs are unable to host national events without a grooming machine like the PistenBully or Snowcat.

Currently, the Whitehorse club is making a bid to host the Canadian championships in 2015. They last hosted the event in 2010.

“We did a good job and the national sport governing body is encouraging us to apply again,” Gladish said.

The first time a PistenBully graced the Whitehorse trails was during the 1992 Arctic Winter Games.

“We had a big meltdown and we had ice, and it was recommended we rent a PistenBully,” Gladish said.

The club had one shipped from Calgary for the week, and “nobody wanted it to leave.”

A quick fund-raising effort raised about $50,000, which was used to purchase the used machine. That first machine was used until it had to be towed away, but the second machine was traded in while it still had value.

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