12 years ago, some skidder loggers in a French Alp village got the idea of starting a “forest event”, as a summer activity in the ski resort Les Gets. Some of the guys were skidder operators and they got the idea to make a skidder competition. Using the area around the steep ski slope. They called the event “Les Cognées” which means something like the “axes” if I took the French right. Les Cognées became a success right from the start!
I have had a visit to this crazy skidder event and “forest show” on top of my bucket list for a long time but since it is always held when we celebrate Midsummer here in Sweden, it has been difficult to get there. But this year I had booked a holiday tour with the family south through Europe. Of course I made the route to pass Les Cognées during the Midsummer weekend. So, now I finally got there! And here’s some text, pictures and a video from the visit on a very nice and interesting activity:
The skidder companies want to join
As was said, it was a success from the first start and Les Cognées has since been carried out every two years as a large forest meeting for more and more of the alpine forest enthusiasts. In recent years, about 30,000 visitors have come according to the organizers. With the audience success, there was also an interest from companies about participating as exhibitors and sponsors. Today there is an extensive exhibition area with about 100 exhibitors. Visitors comes from most countries in the Alpine region incl. France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and others.
A big forest party
The organizers, however, have stayed to the original idea that it should be a nice, social meeting point and that it should be fun. A needed break from everyday life for those who spend the days working in the alpine forestry. It can be seen in the layout and service offers of the arrangement. A gigantic “square” with seating, tents, food and about 20 beer taps is the central point of Les Cognées. Here you don’t eat lunch at. 12.00 sharp. Here is eating and drinking and talking from the doors open in the morning until they are closed after the first day’s evening program. The atmosphere was nice and there were strikingly many young visitors and also a fairly large proportion of girls and women against what you usually see in a Swedish forest fair. A lot of families with children could be seen, but there was no “general public” who visited but probably only people with some connection to forestry (machine operators, loggers/contractors, lumberjacks, forest owners, forest students, etc. including their families.).
For those of you who haven’t seen a skidder, it can easiest be described as a four-wheeled forest tractor. One wheel in each corner, frame steering and a low center of gravity on the machine. The skidder is faster compared to a forwarder and rather versatile. A skidder is able to handle steep terrain and it runs normally empty uphill and then pulls its load of trunks downhill. In the Alps, it is most common with cable skidders which means a machine that grabs and pulls the trees with wires and two strong winches. The trunks (usually delimbed) are winched into the back of the skidder against a large protective steel plate and then the load is carried down to the landing for further handling. It is common for the European skidders to also have a crane, such as a forwarder crane on the rear. It can be used to hold and steer the load to easier get around in sharp curves and obstacles.
Skidders are also the most common machines to get the timber out of the woods in North America. But there, the machines usually have a hydraulic grapple that holds the trunks (grapple skidders). American skidders are usually bigger and heavier than their European versions. In North America, the skidders often pull their loads on flat ground, while in the Alps it’s mostly pulled downhills.
The cable skidders have the advantage that they can drop the load if the machine is unable to pull the load “by the wheels”. Then the machine can drive forward without load and after some 30-50 meters use the winch drum to get the job done. The skidder winches are both brutally strong and fast!
All skidders have a blade in front that help keep the machine stable when needed and they also have a large, vertical protective steel plate in rear. This plate can be lowered into the ground when the machine needs to stand firm. The front blade is also used for grading when wheel tracks are too deep.
Another version of skidder is to use a forwarder with a clambunk. The clambunk is a large grapple mounted on the forwarder’s rear, with the arms pointing upwards. Often it’s used on a forwarder that’s shortened. Both Gremo, EcoLog and other CTL manufacturers offer this type of machines that are used for pulling full tree loads or very large and long logs.
European skidder manufacturers
The most common skidders in France are the domestic CAMOX machines but there are also many skidders from the German companies HSM and NOE and from Canadian Tigercat (called TCI in France). Croatian manufacturer Hittner (called Latil in France) is also present at this market and among older machines, there are also a lot of CAT machines and JohnDeere/Timberjacks. However, John Deere seems to have disappeared from the market for new sales because, according to the French, their American skidders are too heavy for the Alpine forestry. There is also a Romanian skidder manufacturer who is marketed in France: IRUM/TAF, but they didn’t participate at this year’s Les Cognées.
17 skidder contestants
The main attraction in Les Cognées is the skidder competition. The idea is that a skidder with a load (4 big trunks of about 18 m length) should run a path that goes both uphill and downhill, including curves and difficult passages. The track is marked by poles and for every time the operator come across a pole with wheels or load they get penalty points. The operator with less penalty points will be the winner. There is really no performance competition on time, but time is measured to distinguish competitors who end up on the same points.
The following six skidder brands were used by the contestants:
-CAMOX, F140 and F175
-HSM, 904ZL / ZLH
-TCI (Tigercat), 602 and 610E
-Latil (Finds), T4T Ecotrac 140
Cheerleaders with chainsaws
An interesting phenomenon at Les Cognées was the fans and cher sections that followed the various contestants. Someone had huge bells to make them heard. Those that you usually hear when you see alpine sports on TV. Most cheerleaders, however, had developed this technique further and changed the bells to a chainsaw. Without muffler! (And without chain) One of them had even replaced the muffler for a “megaphone funnel”. Clearly innovative. But hard for the ears!
When I visited Les Cognées it had rained the night before. Conditions on the slope were challenging with fine-grained soil that was very moisty. And slippery! All skidders had chains at all four wheels but even though it was difficult. At the beginning of the race track there was a short but steep uphill slope and most of the machines got problems there. Not least the heavier Tigercat machines. The organizers placed an assisting skidder winch above the hill and helped the contestants to get up. Since this was weather-related and equal for everyone, they didn’t get any penalty points.
After the first hill passed most of them came around the whole track but the rutting became deeper and deeper as time went by. For a Swedish forester, trained to hate ground damage, it looks rather brutal. On the other hand, there may not be so many alternatives to the skidder in this steep terrain? And the roads used by the skidder are often reused again when returning to the same area. Skidder trails more become like some kind of permanent driving routes. Sometimes, however, they look more like bobsleigh tracks than as a forest road.
Alternatives to skidders?
Another technique used to extract timber where it’s steep in the Alpine forests is cable logging. There were exhibitors who showed such technology at Les Gognées as well. A truck or forest machine with a high winch tower is placed down at the landing and then a wire is pulled up to a fixed anchor point at the top of the slope. A carriage runs alongside the main wire and it can be driven up and down the steep slope. From the carriage, a winch wire is lowered and strapped around the trunks or trees. They can then be pulled right up to the carriage before it goes down to the landing. The winches are radio controlled and it all seems to work smoothly when all gear is in place. However, it is an expensive system that requires both hours of work and other equipment (smaller auxiliary winches and excavators) during set up. It seems that the market share of cable logging decreases due to the fact of too expensive logging costs.
A system that, however, seems to increase for logging in steep terrain is the so-called Traction winch. It is a powerful auxiliary winch mounted on the rear of a forwarder or in the front of a harvester. A traction winch has a long wire and it is fastened at the top of the slope in a solid point of attachment. Then the machine pulls up with the winch while it’s working uphill. In this way, a harvester can handle very steep slope. The same applies to the forwarder who uses the winch as “brake” when it is going down with full load. (The technique of traction winch can certainly also be used for skidders). With a traction winch, a CTL machine will probably be able to withstand steeper terrain than a skidder (without winch) can get up in?
If you want to know more about the technical specifications of the different skidders you can read more here:
Les Cognées is a very cool event to visit for an “outsider” and for those who are active in the French forestry, this is certainly a real highlight weekend. Social, interesting and nice. The competition helps to get interest in the forest machines and certainly also to interest young people in working with machines.
For those hundred companies that participated, this was certainly a cost-effective way to meet many existing and potential customers. All companies had relatively small stands with a single machine, a simple tent and their sellers in place.
The organizers have a local focus on the resort (Les Gets) and are completely independent from (trade)associations, organizations or companies. The goal is to offer two interesting and enjoyable days for the forestry people of the Alps. With food, drink and entertainment (competition, fair, party night). Those who want to join are welcome. The entrance is free and the parking is free! Prices of food and beer is also very reasonable.
For those of you who don’t want to wait two more years until the next Les Cognées, there is an excellent opportunity already this fall to see machines in steep terrain: The Austrian forest fair Austrofoma south of Vienna, October 8-10. There are exhibitors and demos of all technology for logging in steep terrain. However, in contrast to Les Cognées, the Austrofoma is “shit serious”. It is arranged by the Austrian Landwirtschaftskammer and the entrance is usually around 50-60 EUR. But on the other hand, you get your own hard hat and a fair catalog packed with facts.
Here’s a video from Les Cognées 2019:
Something that had been interesting to see at Les Cognées is how a forwarder had managed the competition track? With a load or without a load? Do you think an empty 8W forwarder with tracks all around can crawl up the same slopes as a skidder?