Anatomy of a Snowcat

Identifying the essential elements of a mountain grooming machine

By Devon O'Neil November 28, 2022 Published in the Winter/Spring 2023 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

Vail Mountain uses both PistenBully and Prinoth snowcats to groom its slopes. The workhorse Prinoth Bison X, which I rode in with Stephen Becht, is made in Italy, costs more than a Ferrari F8 Spider (about $350,000), weighs 23,000 pounds, and has 410 horsepower. It completes most of its work at six to eight miles per hour. To break down its key components and why each is integral to the overall job, we enlisted Jesse Gibson, Prinoth’s regional manager in Grand Junction.


The all-electric joystick (an upgrade over the hydraulic systems of yore) controls everything on the blade and almost everything on the tiller. Gibson calls it “very operator intuitive. It could run virtually everything on the cat at the same time if you had enough fingers to push the buttons.”


With heated glass windows, climate control, a 13-inch futuristic touch-screen control panel, and heated seats with air-ride suspension, this is not your grandpa’s snowcat cockpit. The three-person compartment is reinforced so that it won’t crush under the cat’s weight in the event of a rollover, but that rarely happens thanks to its low center of gravity.


The tiller’s role is to leave the corduroy finish that guests like so much. It refines the rough surface left by the blade and tracks, tooling it with hundreds of grooves, like the teeth of a comb, which are less than an inch deep.


Up to 18 feet wide, the blade moves in 12 different directions. It loosens and levels the snow with a serrated bottom edge. The driver constantly adjusts the blade’s height and angle so it drags over the surface, creating a rolling wave of snow to fill in thin spots.


The snowcat’s tank-like treads are made up of 66-inch-wide steel bars that grip the snow and provide propulsion and braking. The tracks are about four inches deep, but still need a hard surface to grab. They help churn up the snow for the tiller too.


These are the two red coiled bars under the back of the cat. They chew up the snow once more before evenly distributing it across the tiller. The driver can adjust how fast the cutter bars are spinning to enhance the snow’s consistency.

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