By Paul MacDonald
For Vancouver Island logger Jesse Drover, of JBM Falling Ltd, getting involved in steep slope logging was a natural progression.
Drover operated a feller buncher for 13 years, so he was very familiar with mechanical harvesting before starting work with the ClimbMax steep slope harvester.
In a partnership with Dorian Uzzell of Wahkash Contracting, a well-established West Coast logger, Drover has been operating a ClimbMax tethered harvesting system on the Island, coastal islands and inlets since April 2016. He had a solid 2,000 hours under his belt with the system as of this past fall—and it’s going well.
There are only a handful of the machines currently on the Island, and Drover has had a lot of experience with the machine and the steep slope logging approach, since he had the second ClimbMAX on the Island.
“We found operating in this type of ground is just ideal for the ClimbMax,” he said. “It just sings in this type of ground, going up and down steep slopes all day long.”
And Drover knows exactly how well the machine is working since he is always in the cab of the ClimbMax.
For those not familiar with this breed of New Zealand-built equipment, Drover’s ClimbMAX tail hold steep slope harvester is a Hiatchi 330 excavator equipped with a felling head and a winch capable of felling trees up to 45 degrees—and then some. The harvester has been expressly designed with a low centre of gravity to support tree-falling, bunching, and shovel logging (hoe chucking), on steep slopes. It’s designed by Nigel Kelly and manufactured by NZ-based Trinder Engineers.
The fully integrated winch system provides extra tractive assistance while a blade offers extra stability if required. The tail hold, at the top of the hill, is firmly attached to tied back standing trees or stumps. “There is no way that 15 tonnes is going to pull a tied-back two-foot tree out of the ground,” notes Drover.
By moving contractors and employees to a comfortable and protected cab, the ClimbMAX Steep Slope Harvester improves safety, and markedly increases production, and that has been exactly Drover’s experience. It has, in some cases, made steep forestland—that would have been too expensive to log using fallers and grapple yarders—economic to log.
The safety benefits are substantial. Rather than having fallers working in steep ground, doing the dangerous work of cutting down massive west coast trees, the CimbMAX is able to nimbly move up, down and across hillsides, taking down timber.
While Drover has not worked as a faller, he started out his logging career working on the rigging, so he knows how tough, and dangerous, it can be to work on the ground in steep slopes.
As noted, there are a number of ClimbMAX machines working on Vancouver Island now, but Drover has operated in northern parts of the Island, which can be extremely tough and challenging. Drover was recently logging around the mid-Island, on Comox Lake, for Wolf Lake Logging, but he’s usually working more up island, around Johnstone Strait, off Campbell River, for Wahkash, on TimberWest-owned forestland.
Forest company Tolko had done pioneering work with the ClimbMAX machine in the B.C. Interior, and Wahkash Contracting’s Dorian Uzzell had seen it in action there. Also taking a look at the machine was Aaron Racher, Contract Manager of North Island Operations for TimberWest in Campbell River. “Aaron has been a big part of this, and TimberWest has been very supportive,” says Drover.
“It was Dorian that really came up with the idea to get the ClimbMAX,” Drover explained. “He could see that with the majority of the wood being on the high side of the road with no access from above, being able to work in steep slopes is the way things are going. And I think he knew I would be the right fit to operate it.”
While the ClimbMAX machines have good uptime, Drover said an operator should know to tackle minor repairs. “You have to know how to fix the machine, and not have to call a dealer. Really, I think you need a combination of an operator, a rigging guy and a mechanic.” And Drover fit the bill.
While Drover is a fan of the machine, he noted they have made some changes to their ClimbMAX to get it to where it is today.
“It’s a tough application for the ClimbMAX here on Vancouver Island,” he explained. “We had to do a number of minor upgrades to the track frame, to beef it up. We’re working in more broken ground and in bigger wood than they do in New Zealand. But the Kiwi’s have been awesome in helping us out.”
With any issues, Drover e-mails—or sometimes, even texts, if he is in cell phone range—the Trinder team in New Zealand. “If I send an e-mail, whoever is responsible for the area I’m asking about, hydraulic, electrical or general technical, grabs on to that issue and gets back to me that same day. They’re a good bunch of guys.”
Drover noted that Trinder wants his machine to work for him, and they of course have a vested interest in all the ClimbMAX machines working in B.C., to further develop the market.
Drover says it definitely takes some getting used to, operating on such steep slopes. He initially spent two weeks on the machine, untethered, in 20 to 25 per cent slope ground, just to get the feel of the ClimbMax. There was also the switch from running a hot saw to a bar saw to get used to.
When he started doing work tethered on steeper slopes, there was some natural hesitation, Drover says.
“Everything in your being is telling you not to drop off the side of that steep hill. When you drop over a bank, with your boom up in the air, you think you will go tumbling down the hill.
“But the ClimbMAX does not even spin a track—it’s slow and steady.”
He noted that it’s possible to do some steep slope work with conventional equipment. But you can bet that it’s going to be stressful in very steep ground, and those controls are going to be covered in sweat at the end of the day. “You could be on the edge of your seat all day. But with the ClimbMAX and being tethered, there is pretty much a zero per cent chance of you flipping that machine over when you are staying in good lead with your tail hold.
“You can reach over the side of the track with something heavy, or swing a bundle of trees way out, and it may want to tip like any other machine—but the ClimbMAX is not going anywhere.” Holding the operator in place in the cab is a four-point harness.
It’s comfortable and it’s way less stress, he says. Operators can focus on running the machine 100 per cent vs. being in an untethered machine, and maybe working at 30 or 40 per cent capacity, because they are rightfully being super cautious. “With an untethered machine, you could push the wrong button or lever that could send you tumbling down the hill.”
Drover said that 500 hours of operating time seemed to be the point where he felt more comfortable with the ClimbMAX. “You’re getting to the point where you get the feel of it pretty good, what you can and can’t do. You could probably shorten that up quite a bit if you had someone do the training with you, saying it’s ok to do this or that, and not ok to do this or that.”
The Trinder folks checked him off against a six page check list, to ensure he knew the workings of the machine.
Depending on the ground that they are working in, Drover says the machine can be extremely or even super-efficient, even bringing wood to roadside.
“In this one block, I was bunching it on the hill for the grapple yarder. But with the majority of the wood, I was bringing it all to the road,” he says. “I start at the back end of the block, falling the wood, and then forward the wood to the road and work our way out. And then they were able to come in with the processor and a loader.”
Maintenance-wise, the equipment is not demanding, he reports. “It’s pretty straightforward, changing filters and fluids.” He recommends buying the Uptime Kit Trinder offers, which basically contains a spare for every cylinder on the head, and a variety of electrical and hydraulic valve components. “That’s come in handy quite a few times, giving us more uptime.”
When they are being built, Trinder essentially takes a Hitachi machine, and strips it down, building a wide undercarriage, and repositioning components to get as much weight as low as possible, to achieve a lower centre of gravity. Among the items they keep, though, are the engine, the pumps and some track gear—pretty much everything else is custom. There are custom hydraulics, a custom boom and arm (which is longer) and a custom cab, all manufactured by Trinder. The machine comes with its own Trinder directional felling head. Drover noted that Waratah has purchased the patent for the head from Trinder, so they are now able to get support for the head from Waratah.
As has been emphasized with all tethered equipment, the ClimbMAX is cable assisted—the cable helps hold the machine in place. But there is often little, if any, weight on the cable when the machine is working. The winch can be in auto mode, which allows it to take in or let out cable, as required, as the machine moves up and down a slope. In Drover’s operation, the ClimbMAX is equipped with 380 m of 23 mm (7/8”) swaged cable. The winch is designed by Trinder.
In addition to actually operating the machine, Drover says there can be a learning curve in winch attachment technique, which trees to catch, and which trees to hang on. Rigging experience is key, he said.
If a block is not well planned out, Drover says, it can be a bit of a struggle.
But forest company TimberWest, which has extensive private and public landholdings on Vancouver Island, has been very supportive.
Strategic Natural Resource Consultants Inc does the primary forestry and engineering work, doing the layouts and ribbon hanging. And TimberWest brought out some of its own senior people, plus Strategic Natural Resource people, to take a look at the ClimbMAX machine and ask Drover questions, to try to make sure they are making optimum use of what Drover likes to call a “game changer”, in terms of logging equipment. They’ve carefully chosen the ground the machine is working in. “Good planning and communication is crucial,” he said.
And there is going to be a lot of steep ground going forward in B.C. Drover noted that there are estimates that upwards of 70 per cent of the fibre on the B.C. coast over the next 20 years is going to come from steep slopes. “Unless you are hell bent on staying with hand falling and grapple yarding, which can be very costly, you are going to have to do something different.”
And it has come on quickly, he added. “If someone had told me five years ago that I’d be taking a machine up these slopes we are doing now, I’d have said they were crazy.”
In addition, there are likely to be fewer fallers available for work going forward. The average age of a B.C. faller is now 58.
But probably the most important consideration is safety. Operating steep slope equipment means no one on the ground, logging. Drover is in full agreement with that since he’s seen his share of friends and associates injured, and worse, over the years.
Even though the ClimbMAX does the equivalent work of fallers on steep slopes, Drover noted there are always going to be situations where steep slope equipment can’t be used, and fallers are still going to be required. “There will always be a place in the industry for good fallers,” he says.
For other operators or contractors looking to get into steep slope equipment such as the ClimbMAX, Drover said they first and foremost should have a solid operator. “It doesn’t matter what kind of equipment you have, it’s who is pulling the levers and pushing the buttons,” he said.
“And with this equipment, you also want to make sure you have steady work. You don’t want to make payments on this kind of costly equipment if it isn’t working for you—a lot,” he added.
The move to operating the new machine came at the right time for Drover. After many years running a feller buncher, it was good to move on to something new, he says. “Running the buncher was kind of like mowing the lawn after a while. I needed to do something else, but I did not know what that might be. I probably could have run out my career on a buncher, but I knew this was going to be the next big thing.”
Drover noted the move to purchasing the ClimbMAX with Wahkash Contracting was a gamble, but a calculated gamble. “It was a bit of a roll of the dice, but I was confident I could run the machine. But in terms of the ground we are working in and the application we are using it for, it was still a gamble. I had never seen one of these machines before, and I had never felled trees with a bar saw before.
“But I was confident I could run the machine. Besides, like my grandfather used to say, ‘No risk, no reward’. You have to put yourself out there if you want to make a go of it in West Coast logging.”
On the Cover:
For Vancouver Island logger Jesse Drover of JBM Falling Ltd, getting involved in steep slope logging was a natural progression. Drover operated a feller buncher for 13 years, so he was very familiar with mechanical harvesting before starting work with the ClimbMax steep slope harvester—and the tethered harvesting system is working out well for him, doing steep slope logging on the Island. (Cover photo by Paul MacDonald).
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