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This Vehicle Takes Skiers to the Top of the Mountain and Drives Itself Back Down
If skiing had golf carts this is what they would be
Somehow a bear’s gonna end up riding one of these things
One of the interesting things about living in the future is the constant application of new technologies to ever-more novel purposes. Like when I was trying to sleep in on the weekends and my mom decided that that was an excellent hour to vacuum the hallway outside my bedroom door for 45 minutes, I never imagined we’d one day have little robot vacuums questing across our homes like dust-bunny Zeldas in search of the garbage Triforce. But thanks to geniuses who re-applied technology once used to map the surface of the moon, a Roomba can now learn and roam your house on its own.
The geniuses are at work in the ski world as well, inventing large expensive things that we were unaware we needed but will unquestionably purchase in large enough quantities to eventually kill their novelty. One of these geniuses is Dr. Seth Neubardt, a New York-based orthopedic spine surgeon out of whose brain spun a self-driving contraption called the dolaGon, a kind of personal mini-snowcat that drops skiers at the top of the mountain and drives itself back down. Observe:
Neubardt, who has registered more than 20 patents, dreamed up the dolaGon after repeated conditions busts on Western ski trips. “All my trips out west, I would either be before the big snow or after the big snow,” he said. “When you go out West, you look out the airplane window, and you're flying over hundreds of miles of snow. Then the plane lands and everybody takes transportation to the same mountain and lines up at the same ski lifts on the same 50 runs. But there's no shortage of snow – there's a shortage of access.”
The solution, Neubardt thinks, is to spread skiers out along those hundreds of miles of snowy mountains by “democratizing” the ski lift. “It comes down to this chokehold that the companies have on skiers, which is the ski lift,” he said. “It's this one piece of infrastructure that gives them power. If you take that away from them, now all of a sudden everything is scalable. What happens if every 10 miles there’s a dolaGon with some kid running it himself?”
Of course we all have ideas every day. Mine is to build a Jetsons-style self-driving air bubble that will zing me from Brooklyn to the top of Snowbird every time it snows a foot. But considering it recently took me five hours to hang a new ceiling fan, such a technological breakthrough is sadly outside my potential legacy.
Neubardt could actually make this happen at scale, though it won’t be easy. His first attempt at the dolaGon was a self-driving snowmobile on an old Catskills game farm near Hunter Mountain.
“There's a guy there who like runs that place, one of these guys who just knows everything about fixing stuff,” Neubardt remembers. “And we pulled up with this thing on a trailer, and he’s like, ‘I don't think that's going to work. What you need is a UTV track.’ And we were like ‘No, no, you don't know what you're talking about. Go away on man.’ Literally two hours later, we had crashed the vehicle in the spectacular 50 miles-per-hour crash. Thank God no one was there. And he's there with his backhoe pulling us out. And we're like bowing down in front of him asking, what was the vehicle you said we needed?”
Neubardt then purchased a Polaris Side x Side, modified it with tracks and off-the-shelf autonomous farm tractor equipment, and spent the winter of 2019-20 testing it on Timber Ridge, the once-public ski area off the back side of Vermont’s Magic Mountain (the ski areas were briefly combined under the Magic name in the 1980s; Timber Ridge is now private property, but Magic skiers can access it if they know how).
The six-passenger vehicle performed well, and Neubardt invested in further upgrades to prepare for a winter testing the dolaGon in Colorado, partnering with Indiana-based Hexagon to upgrade the self-driving technology. That’s when he hit the next snag.
“There's two groups of people: people who understand autonomous vehicles, and people that understand snow vehicles,” he said. “What I found was the people that knew snow vehicles had absolutely no hesitation understanding or having faith in the autonomy piece. And the people that understood the autonomy piece had absolutely no fear that this vehicle goes through the snow. The reality is that going through snow is extraordinarily difficult and autonomy in the snow is also extraordinarily difficult.”
The vehicle struggled in the steep terrain and light snow of Colorado’s Vail Pass. At one point, his team had to dig it out after it sank in 12 feet of snow. And the autonomy upgrades amounted to overbuild. “The machine was overqualified for the trail and actually got me into more trouble,” Neubardt said. “Everything made for autonomous vehicles is made for roads and it's just so over-complicated. I need something really, really, really stupid.”
These are solvable problems, Neubardt says. He’s dreaming up solutions to make the technology dumber and the mechanical better, a combination of artificial intelligence, deep sonar, flotation bags, and increasing the surface area of the tracks. He needs to, he says, become an “expert on snow autonomy,” and he has more patents in the works. For now, he’ll continue to modify the Polaris. He figures $70,000 as the go-to-market price, a cost that would make the dolaGon the mountain-town equivalent of the lakeside speedboat, opening easy access to the terrain above.
One of my first thoughts was how funny it would be when an unoccupied dolaGon got cliffed out, the robot version of this snowboarder clinging for dear life in Whistler:
But Neubardt says the vehicle is not designed for the radsters. “I'm not out there to service those people who want to go on the cliffs,” he says. “People ask, how are you going to get that up that mountain? And my answer is, I'm not going up that mountain. You want to go up that mountain, go get a helicopter, best of luck to you. I'm going for, like, Southern Vermont.”
In its current iteration, the dolaGon can handle six to eight inches of snow before getting bogged down. He envisions the machines operating on continuous loops of modest terrain, or perhaps fleets of dolaGons following a path cleared by a Snowcat.
I suspect this is just the beginning of autonomous vehicles in skiing. It’s easy to imagine self-driving hotel shuttles ferrying skiers to the lifts or squadrons of Roomba-Cats grooming Beaver Creek at noon. And while the dolaGon’s pricetag of 70 grand is more than most people make in a year and the hundreds of miles of rugged terrain Neubardt references is untouched because it’s rugged and difficult to access, the costs are likely to drop and the technology is likely to improve in ways that can better navigate into the backcountry with time. Issues with high-dollar clients ignorant to avalanche dangers and tensions with huff-up-the-incline skinners are probably inevitable, but we’re a long way from dealing with either one.
For now, this is a passion project. Neubardt says he is not yet seeking investors. “My goal is not to replace a Snowcat, but more to just provide this wonderful day where you and your family or two buddies or three buddies and just ski 20 runs on blue-to-black-type stuff,” he says. “That is what skiing is, what it used to be. And that's very achievable with not much work on the technology side.”
Bousquet officially exits the endangered-ski-areas list
When I skied Bousquet with my then-10-year-old daughter two years ago, it felt like the opposite of a world where self-driving snowtanks exist. The place was quaint, rinky-dink, faded, one of those how-much-longer-could-this-possibly-stay-open tales of New England ski area decay and dissolution.
Then Mill Town bought it and hired Berkshire East and Catamount owner John Schaefer to tell them what to do with it. It was the equivalent of using dynamite to clear a hornet’s nest: you achieved what you wanted to, but you accomplished a whole lot more than you ever meant to in the process.
New England Ski Industry News summarized the lightspeed improvements at this Massachusetts bump last week: a leveling and $5 million rebuilding of the base lodge, an overhaul of the Blue Chair (the last operating Hall center-pole double in New England, the article says), and, in true Jon Schaefer fashion, “consolidating a three-year snowmaking project into 2021, completing a full rebuild of the system.”
A few years back, I would have put Bousquet on New England’s most-endangered-ski-areas list. Not anymore. This place is going to be revving along for a long, long time.
My new nominee for most endangered? Tenney, which made the likely catastrophic decision to sit out the 2020-21 ski season due to “ever-changing recommendations, rules, and regulations regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.” Everyone else figured it out and they didn’t and they’re probably toast because of it.
This was my favorite Tweet thread in a long time
Most of us would see a story about a chairlift-riding bear and be like “Wow a story about a chairlift-riding bear” and share it on Instapost and move on with our day. But Lift Blog’s Peter Landsman dissected it like an MIT astrophysicist kicking down the door at a flat-earther convention:
Landsman has an astonishing encyclopedia of all things ski-lift in his brain, which is why I asked him to be one of my first guests when I launched The Storm Skiing Podcast in 2019. So I was not shocked at all when he pulled this out of his back pocket like John Arbuckle producing a guitar from behind his back [2:46] in a Garfield cartoon:
He then drops the mic and walks off Twitter with this:
If you think you know a lot about chairlifts just talk to this dude for like five minutes and you’ll feel like Steve Urkel talking to The Rock about weightlifting. I highly recommend signing up for his email newsletter.
Glade work at Waterville Valley:
New York Ski Blog wants you to stop whining about pass prices. Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has extended the deadline for proposals to operate Denton Hill ski area, a 650-footer that has been closed since 2014. Ski’s reader survey includes Bretton Woods, Wachusett, and Smuggs as among the top seven for grooming in North America. Vermont honors National Guard member who helped rescue stranded skiers at Stowe last year. The federal government may change the way it distributes rents paid by ski areas operating on public land. The New Yorker publishes a long read on skiing in China. This year’s list of NSAA award winners includes Big Snow, for best guest safety program. I don’t know how Lift Blog digs this crap up but Wildcat will replace the chairs on its Wildcat Express quad according to these State of New Hampshire Passenger Tramway Board minutes from a meeting in May that probably four people on the planet have read. Thoughts on skiing with dad. I somehow totally missed Vail’s pair of Epic by Nature podcasts in February exploring its commitment to diversity in skiing – I’ll have more to say on those soon.
This week in not skiing
Last August I spent a long hot afternoon walking the old Tuxedo Ridge ski area in New York. Idle since 2015, the place is flash frozen in time, as though it were evacuated rather than deliberately decommissioned. The snowguns, lifts, signage, and buildings are overgrown but intact. Only the Snowcats, easy to move and sickeningly expensive, appear to have been sold.
I left feeling melancholy. I’d never skied there and I regretted it: I only live an hour and 15 minutes away. I thought about this day for months, wanting to write about it but unable to find the time to do it properly until a couple weeks ago. The process was cathartic, and the response to that article far exceeded that of my typical post.
Which gave me an idea. I regret the ski areas that I missed, but plenty of them, especially those closed in the last two decades, remain in skeletal form. I can’t ski them, but I can explore them and at least document what’s left. With a day off from work on Friday and a 1990s Peak Ski Guide & Travel Planner as a reference, I set off for the Poconos to explore a trio of abandoned ski areas.
Situated atop a housing development a dozen miles off Interstate 80, the remains of Kah Kout tumble 435 feet down narrow fern-carpeted trails and broad meadows. The snowguns are gone and the signage is gone and the lodges are gone but the double chair remains, incongruously perched opposite the community swimming pool.
The liftline is steep and long. I walked it haltingly. It drops abruptly through a forest before flattening onto a field, then goes near vertical on its final decent. It was while navigating this last part that I heard a rustling to my left and looked and there scrambling up trees like flags being tugged up a flagpole were several small black creatures. Bears. Baby bears. I don’t know anything about bears but I do know that a good way to piss off any animal is to appear to threaten its offspring and I also know that bears are big and strong and fast enough that me fighting one would be like flying a crop duster into a dogfight with an F-15. So I promptly showed myself out of the forest before I became Man-Eaten-by-Bear-After-Taking-Selfie-With-Cubs Guy on the local TV station.
The winding narrow backroads of the Poconos are striped with 30-mile-an-hour speed limits but I don’t think anyone drives below 60 even around corners marked with multiple billboard-sized 15-mile-an-hour caution signs. Half an hour up such roads sits Alpine Mountain, its access road gated. When Jim and Linda Schlier purchased the place in 2016 for $412,500, they explicitly said they would not reopen the mountain to skiing and intended to sell two of the three chairlifts. Instead, they would convert it into a destination resort.
No development has taken place, and the lifts remain. A pair of quads pokes over the summit as you drive up from the residential area surrounding the mountain. One is center-poled and the other isn’t and even after five years swinging in the wind they look perfectly useable, their chairs tacking down the mountain in mesmerizing metronome.
My 1990s guidebook says the ski area rises 500 vertical feet but my Runkeeper app and topo maps say 300. The mountain tapers gently toward the base until the last 100 feet, when it goes freefall steep. The grass around the lodge is mowed and the building is boarded and neatly stacked chairs sit visible through the upper windows. A short double chair rises up a pitch that is not at all a bunny hill and the upper station is overgrown, Amazonian almost in its subversion to relentless nature.
Another 40 minutes up wild Pennsylvania highway is Tanglwood, 415 vertical feet shuttered since 2010. The mountain once had two doubles and two T-bars and a ropetow but now it has nothing, the place stripped as though looted by a ski grinch stuffing the chairs and tower guns into his wicked sleigh. Concrete lift towers anchored into the forest and the trails themselves are all that remain. The place is filled with deer. Like all the ski areas I visited that day it is lined with houses. It is late in the day and the American mole people are emerging to stand on their decks and tend to their plants and I wonder what it would be like to live on a ski area and then not live on a ski area because the ski area is gone and now you just live on a mountain where it hardly ever snows and you can hardly ever ski. I think I would be pissed.