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PistenBully snow groomer

PistenBully: Making Tracks and Smooth Trails

By Stephen King

Well, this one is just a bit different. Instead of talking about a sled, I am talking about a groomer. This month, we had the idea to talk about the people who groom the trails — how important they are, how much we owe them and that we need to thank them. So, we also had this idea. (I say “we” because sometimes Scott Drzewiecki, our advertising manager, does have a good idea.) 

Then we decided that while we were talking about the people who drive the groomers, we should also talk about one of their rides. So, we thought about it a bit and decided to feature the PistenBully.

For those of you who haven’t been paying that much attention, there are basically two types of groomers out there. The regular-sized ones, like the elephants, and then the really big ones, like the whales. Both are pretty big machines.

Now, the really big ones are the farm tractors. They do the job and a lot of people like them. But they are big. With that said, there are a lot of trails out there where bigger is not better. One that comes to mind is between Paradise and the Falls.

A few years back, I had the chance to ride along with Mike Cook, who was head of the Paradise Area Night Riders grooming program. I went along with him while he was “freezing down” the trail between Paradise and the Falls.

In that area, the trail runs across miles of bog — basically bottomless muck, with these cute little bushes and stunted trees scattered about. We were riding along, waiting for the ice to break. Then, with a huge crashing sound, the groomer would sink. Then, after I started to breath again, we would slowly move on.

Piston Bully Sales Rep Mike Williams with the Chippewa Snow Chaser’s Trail Bully.
Piston Bully Sales Rep Mike Williams with the Chippewa Snow Chaser’s Trail Bully.

What this did was to sink the ice down into the muck. Then, the cold would freeze the top and, the next day, the groomer drivers would repeat the process over miles of bog. Anybody that says driving a groomer is boring should do a ride with Mike.

Now, we were running without a drag. Just the groomer. (Basically, there are two parts: the tractor, which we usually call the “groomer,” and the drag, which is towed behind.) Mike noted that if we had been using a bigger machine, it probably would have just sunk down completely and become just another ghost of the bog.

So, he was using a smaller groomer. Now, along with being able to swim better than the larger ones, the PistenBully, being smaller, works better in twisty, turning trails, like through the cedar swamp that surrounds the town I live in. And, being shorter, they have less of a tendency to snag the overhanging trees.

Anyway, the PistenBully: First, I have seen them around since like forever. Pretty much since I have been doing this — like for about 26 years now.

I started seeing them first while covering snowcross races, many held at ski hills. (Don’t get me going on this. Cruising along at 140 mph: Cool! Falling down a big hill with two sticks tied to your feet — just plain silly.) At these races, I saw a lot of PistenBullys. Also, if memory is correct, one of the major circuits even had one to groom their tracks.

While doing my research for this article, I happened upon Mike Williams, a sales rep for PistenBully. He told me that the snowmobile trail market is only about 10% of the business that PistenBully does. The rest is on ski hills, which explains why I kept seeing them at these venues.

Mike also explained that the PistenBully is made in Germany. That, I kind of knew, but the extent of the company was something I had not known. It is a worldwide company, selling machines just about anywhere there is snow and/or skiing — which is just about everywhere, from North America, to all over Europe and even way down under in New Zealand. I was totally impressed.

As for its history, PistenBully got started in Europe. In 1967, founder Karl Kassbohrer was on a vacation at a ski hill (kind of a European thing.) He got chatting with the rope tow operator and got the idea of creating a machine that would groom the ski hills.

A couple years later, in 1969, the first one hit the slopes and PistenBully was born. A few years later, in a stroke of marketing genius, Karl took four of his groomers to Sapporo, Japan, for the Winter Olympics. With the entire world watching (not even just a cliché, this was the 1972 Winter Olympics and the whole world really was watching), his machines and the smooth hills impressed everyone. This shot him onto the world stage. Within a few years, he had become the major player in grooming machines. 

Then, in 1980, they went all the way to the deep south. No, not Georgia — Antarctica. And the machines did well. So well that in 1990, PistenBully put another feather in its cap. The company got the contract to send 31 machines to Antarctica. They got the bragging rights of being able to send machines to a place where winter never ends; the harshest winter place on the planet.

Now, back to the good old USA. I talked to my old friend Rex Hyrns, who is president of the Chippewa County Snow Chasers. Rex has a whole garage full of toys, including one whale. He has a couple of PistenBullys as well. And he loves them — so much that he should probably be getting a commission from the home office for his sales pitch.

Mike, the sales rep, told me there are many models out there. Rex told me there are basically two: the Model 100 and the Model 400. At least in his world, the snowmobile trail world. He uses the smaller one. Mark over in Seney runs a bigger one. But the two clubs have wildly different trails. Mark has flat trails over sandy ground. Rex has the variety pack and a lot of twisty trails.

Even though he loves his PistenBully, Rex did point out a couple things the rep did not. Rex has an issue with some of the newer models because they use a joystick rather than a steering wheel. A lot of Rex’s people are on the upper side of … Well, let’s just say they didn’t play with joy sticks when they were kids like the younger people do today.

He also had an issue with filling the things up because of where the fuel tank is mounted. He has to climb up to fuel up. He was not happy about that. Other than those few issues, Rex was pretty good with PistenBully.

He was totally happy with the support he got from the company. While over at the Lumberjack Bar, which is Rex and wife Mary’s day job (Ask for gravy for your fries and tell Mary you heard it from me.), Rex told me that while Mike was there, he gave him the refresher course in PistenBully maintenance. Just a few tips to make it easier for Rex to keep the thing running.

From my point of view, I, too, love the PistenBully. In doing what I do, I do ride-alongs quite a bit, heading out on the trails and riding along with the groomer drivers. Give them a bit of recognition, which they all deserve.

When I head out, I get to ride in whatever that particular club uses. And, from experience, I just love the PistenBully. Way comfortable. Big cushy seats. Great big picture window. Climate control. Can cruise down the trail in just regular clothes. Put my feet up. Taking pictures as we head down the trails. (Gotta love it.) And, from time to time, I have been known to get behind the wheel. From that bit of experience, I can say for a fact that the PistenBully is really easy to operate.

When you sit in the driver’s seat, everything is literally at your fingertips. All the controls are right there. And, even though the seat is totally comfortable, you can still really feel the machine. Almost kind of a Zen thing, that you and the machine totally become one. A great feeling.

So, when you are out on the trails and see a PistenBully, give the driver a wave and a thumb’s up. They always appreciate it. For you groomer club people, think about this; are you trying to impress the cows or are you wanting to ride in something totally cool?

PistenBully snow groomer

Kassbohrer All Terrain Vehicles built the first production hydrostatic driven snow groomer in 1969.  The company has now built and delivered over 24,000 PistenBully’s worldwide.  Kassbohrer opened a factory store in Minnesota in 2004 with Paul Swanson as Regional Manager and James Lindgren as Service Manager, both came from Track Inc. which was the PistenBully dealer prior to the factory store opening.

Kassbohrer and snow grooming has a way of getting into your blood, there are many people who take great pride in doing a thankless job and many as volunteers! – making great trails, both for skiing and snowmobiling.  Many of the employees of Kassbohrer in North America have been with the company for many years, in our Midwest office alone; James Lindgren, the service manager has more than 25 years with PistenBully, Paul Scanlon, Regional Manager started as a service technician 15 years ago, Al Greime – one of four service technicians has 16 years with the company, Bryan Wheeler another service technician has been with the company 8 years and Chris Peterson our parts representative has been with PistenBully for 6 years.

PistenBully is dedicated to snowmobile trail grooming, with dedicated models designed and built solely for the purpose of grooming snowmobile trails, starting with the Trail Bully in 2006 and now the 400 Trail Narrow Gauge and other models adapted to fit the demands of the snowmobile trail grooming market.

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