Truckee resident makes innovations on grooming equipment
For a sport that is all about gravity and snow, Steve Rankin has designed machines that use gravity to move snow.
After 22 years in the ski industry, eight of them as Assistant Resort Operations Director at Sugar Bowl, Steve understands the needs of snow shapers. One may say he was ski area educated, as he began his stint at Sugarbowl in 1977, immediately after graduating high school in Auburn.
In 1985 Steve demoed an experimental Sims board while being pulled behind a snowmobile at Sugar Bowl. In 1997 he revolutionized half-pipe construction with the Scorpion. For 2000 he will introduce the Stinger, a smaller, lighter, and more versatile form of the Scorpion.
When he put his experience at ski areas such as Sugar Bowl, Telluride, and Boreal together with the mechanics skills he learned from his father growing up, Steve ended up with grooming machines that make operators more comfortable and park construction more convenient.
First he wanted to create a half-pipe groomer that, unlike the original pull-behind Pipe Dragon, would not require the driver to constantly look back over his shoulder. Steve said that the chains and paddles on the Pipe Dragon often stretched out or broke off.
So he designed a front-mount apparatus, the Scorpion, which attaches to any snowcat. It is capable of moving and shaping more snow than previous half-pipe carvers because, instead of pulling snow from the base up into the transition and onto the sidewalls, it uses conveyors that feed a blower to move snow. Basically it carves the wall first, then displaces the snow that was removed and uses it to build the other wall.
“The Scorpion is the only one that does it in the fashion that it does,” said Steve. “The paddle-type machines take snow and paddle it up into the wall. The Scorpion uses gravity to pull snow down to a snowblower.
“With the blower you can blow it back into the wall, up the other deck, the other wall, the sun-exposed wall, so you’ve got more versatility. It’s much more aggressive.”
Steve drew the design for the first Scorpion by hand and then went through a trial and error process to create the prototype, which was made of iron. When seven of them were ordered based on demonstrations of the first prototype, Steve built them himself in less than five months in a Reno warehouse. Since 1997 he has sold 12 in the U.S. and Canada.
The Pipe Dragon and other half-pipe machine manufacturers have now converted to front-mount designs, but they still use the paddle conveyor construction.
Steve says it has been difficult for “a little guy” like himself to compete with the snowcat manufacturers who sell other pipe-carving machines in conjunction with snowcat sales.
However, Steve’s newest invention taps into the park craze that has infiltrated the ski industry. The Stinger is a fun-maker that Steve says is more manageable, affordable, and versatile than the Scorpion. The prototype was built in the Rankins’ garage here in Truckee, so it is fitting that this season it will carve a mini-pipe at Tahoe Donner and the boardercross at Sierra Summit. Mt. Hood Ski Bowl in Oregon and Bogus Basin in Idaho have also purchased the Stinger.
“Its a great tool for boardercross,” said Steve. “You can use the blade so you can push the hit (jump) up with the implement (the Stinger) on there. The other machines you’ve got to go up and rough everything with the blade, come back, take the blade off, put the HBG or the Dragon or the Scorpion on then go shape it. This, you can actually push the snow up, and build the berms with the implement on, turn the implement on, then shape it.”
The Stinger uses a compact version of the Scorpion’s design (it weighs 500 pounds compared to the Scorpion’s 2,800) and applies it to more uses.
“There is nothing else that exists in the market right now like it. It is the only one that is in that kind of price range, that kind of weight category, that kind of versatility,” said Steve.
Tahoe Donner Operations Manger, Don Harder, said that mountain has no need for a 12-foot half-pipe, but that it does have the market for a park.
“The Scorpion is a good compromise,” he said. He said the main selling points were that it comes on and off fairly easily so it does not constantly tie up a groomer; it is versatile; the blade tilt can be adjusted; and it can reach fairly high. Tahoe Donner plans to use the Stinger for their 6 to 8-foot half-pipe this season.
For Steve and his wife, Terry, the sales are not the only exciting aspect of the Stinger. Last season they opened a lift-operated tubing and sledding hill in Kingvale at the site of the Plavada ski area that closed in 1970.
They use the Stinger to create lanes and carve berms. When the snow falls this season, Steve said he plans to have five lanes, one with a series of banked turns, rises, and dips referred to as a “pinball lane.”
Steve said that safety at the hill depends on shaping the lanes correctly.
“You’ve got to get gravity to pull ’em down against the wall and then shape the berms where they are very steep so it just takes them like a glove and spits em around the corner,” said Steve.
One could consider the tubing and sledding hill Steve’s latest invention. When asked what he will build next, he said, “I’m trying to build a tubing park and build a business up there.”
And as the Scorpion was new to half-pipe grooming, the tubing hill is something new for the region. Steve said the Kingvale Tubing and Sledding Center is the only solely tubing operation in northern California that is not associated with a ski resort.
“If you have an idea and you don’t do it than you’re always going to say, ‘what could have happened?'” said Terry. “So we’re going for it and we’re hoping for the best.”
They plan on having bonfires and night tubing during the holidays and anyone who visits may have the opportunity to witness the future of park grooming, the Stinger, in action.
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