CODY, WYO. — There is no surer sign of the end of winter in Yellowstone National Park than the crews currently working 12-hour shifts to clear snow from more than 300 miles of mountainous roads that traverse the park. But it’s not the aging behemoth snowplows that locals are buzzing about this spring.
Rather, it’s a new mystery machine of unknown origins that some say could forever change winter travel in Yellowstone, and eventually revolutionize a $25-billion-dollar industry ripe for disruption from a bold startup with deep pockets.
Despite what has become an open secret widely discussed in gateway communities around Yellowstone, National Park Service officials are sharing scant details of what some theorize is a “secret project” to bring electric snowmobiles to the world’s first national park by December of this year.
The sightings are too numerous to ignore, and eyewitness accounts are too similar to be dismissed, detailing what insiders are calling a “hovercraft” or “super-sled,” and something many have now dubbed the “Snow Tesla.”
Comparisons to the Tesla brand of sleek electric cars that have shaken up the automotive industry are particularly apt, according to several individuals who described the Yellowstone snowmobile project.
Tesla founder Elon Musk is “a serial entrepreneur who focuses on making huge changes to long-stagnant industries, and he’s doing it again, this time with over-snow travel,” said Casper Korvich, a tech industry analyst with the San Francisco-based Bidenhoffer Fund.
Efforts to make viable electric snowmobiles have faced complications in developing a powerful and long-lasting battery than can deliver a range of 100 miles or more in extreme cold and harsh winter conditions.
Korvich said several signs suggest that the secret money and tech savvy behind the current Yellowstone Snow Tesla project comes from Musk, whose SpaceX made history just days ago by re-launching and successfully landing a previously used rocket to place a payload in orbit.
A handful of local and far-flung cyber-sleuths have been sharing information online about Snow Tesla since mid-December, and have developed a convincing trail of circumstantial evidence pointing to Musk.
An offshore subsidiary of Tesla has leased living quarters and workshop space at a guest ranch in the Wapiti Valley, between Cody, Wyo. and the park’s East Entrance, said Shalayne Sperry, moderator of a private Internet forum where members have been tracking the Snow Tesla.
Sperry said Musk was spotted in January at a popular Montana hot springs resort just north of park headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyo., and a private plane registered to SpaceX has twice been seen this winter at Yellowstone Regional Airport in Cody.
No comment, no disclosure
Yellowstone spokesman Stan Thatch said he couldn’t comment on rumors about the Snow Tesla, or Musk’s potential involvement.
“What I can tell you is that the Park Service has long had an interest in any over-snow vehicle that is cleaner and quieter than what we have had in the past,” Thatch said. “We also sometimes work with private, government and academic researchers. Certain non-disclosure agreements with those kinds of partners may temporarily prevent us from sharing all the details of such projects.
Those who have spotted what they believe is the Snow Tesla describe a bulky and unwieldy looking snowmobile—sometimes accompanied by a second similar machine—moving with uncanny silence along the park’s snow-covered roads. Riders are dressed all in white, and never stop, or even wave.
“It’s spooky. I was standing along the road taking pictures of the lake when I heard a weird ‘whoosh,'” said Terrence Rovak, a guide with Honey Bear Tours of West Yellowstone, Mont. “It was two guys in white on weird, beefy-looking sleds, but there was no engine sound at all, just the sound of them sliding along the snow.”
Rovak snapped a photo of the sleds as they passed, and has made three other more distant Snow Tesla sightings over the winter. But he has been unable to get an official explanation from anyone about what the sleds were doing in the park, or who is behind them.
Industry insiders say sled designers, like automakers, often intentionally disguise their prototype vehicles with foam, tape, false panels and other red herrings to camouflage their true lines and shapes. Such obfuscations could be hiding fuel cells, advanced batteries or other clean, silent propulsion systems.
One state official said he is “sick of being stonewalled” by the Park Service in trying to learn more about the Snow Tesla project.
“Here we go again, with another pig-in-a-poke project from the federal government,” said Wyoming Rep. Teetrick Huddleton, a Republican from Cody. “How many millions are we spending in secret to make an electric snowmobile that nobody wants? And how much will this new ‘best-available technology’ cost small business owners to upgrade to when it’s required?”
“I think anyone can tell you that part of the fun of riding a snowmobile is feeling and hearing that throbbing engine between your legs and breathing in that smell of exhaust in the morning,” he said.
Huddleton described Musk as a “goofy weirdo who has yet to deliver on any of the wild promises he’s making with all these scattered tech ventures.”
Sharm Dresden, wildlife policy specialist for the Friends of Yellowstone Alliance, said she was in favor of any project that made Yellowstone quieter and cleaner, and said Musk’s success this week with SpaceX shows he can tackle big problems.
“If Elon Musk can make solar power free for everyone and send people to Mars and build the Hyperloop connecting L.A. and San Francisco in 30 minutes, why can’t he make a snowmobile that floats like a magic carpet?” Dresden said.
But many Snow Tesla skeptics have asked why Musk would be wasting time on building an electric snowmobile in light of his many other major pursuits?
“We’ve seen this from Musk before, and I suspect whatever he’s doing here fits into the larger picture,” said Korvich, the tech analyst. “Musk is using technologies from his space, solar and auto efforts to further his big goals, like colonizing Mars. It’s likely the same with this snowmobile.”
Musk could be testing Tesla and Solar City battery and solar panel technology in extreme cold and limited winter sunlight, or making a prototype for a vehicle that could glide over Martian deserts or polar ice caps,” Korvich said.
“He’s a master marketer and promoter, and I can’t think of a better way to get free publicity than attaching a project like this to Yellowstone,” he said. “You’re already writing about it, and others will be soon.”
Sperry, head of the online forum investigating Snow Tesla, said a source had shown her documents detailing Musk’s involvement in the snowmobile project, which is operating under the code name of “Shackleton.”
Ernest Shackleton was a polar explorer who gained fame after leading three expeditions to the Antarctic in the early 1900s. He also pioneered the use of a motorized snow sled driven by an airplane propeller.
“Shackleton is not just the project’s code name, but it’s also supposedly an acronym that describes the whole thing,” Sperry said. “I haven’t seen anything yet on what the acronym is, but I have my theories. Probably something like: Snow-Hovering Autonomous Conveyance by Kinetic Liner Electric Transport Over Nature.”
But Sperry said she would continue to refer to the project as Snow Tesla, rather than Shackleton.
“Snow Tesla sounds modern and cool,” she said. “In 1915, Shackleton’s group was stranded near the South Pole after their ship got stuck in the ice. They ended up having to eat their dogs. No thank you!”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].