From the ML vaults, freeskier Mark Abma’s burliest line on the Alaskan highway…
words :: Feet Banks.
How’s this for a test drive? In January 2011 Pemberton freeskier Mark Abma converted his truck to run on waste veggie oil (WVO) then in early March he packed it up and drove to Anchorage, Alaska and back – over 7000 kilometres of frozen highway.
“There were a few hiccups on the way up,” Abma says. “We had to stop in Prince George and it was one of those things where I tried everything that wasn’t obvious before realizing it was a $15 fuel filter. Otherwise though, it was about 700 litres to get up there and the WVO produces 98 percent less CO2 than regular fuel.”
To undertake such a massive, all-in test mission is not out of character for Abma. This is a guy, after all, who rips big ski lines on even bigger mountains six to eight months of the year, and after missing two consecutive springs with knee injuries, he was ready to get back into the snow.
“The weather in Alaska had huge high-pressure this year and stability was amazing,” Abma says of his two-month foray in freeskiing’s ultimate testground. “This was one of their biggest years up there and some of the best skiing of my life.”
The truck performed equally well. WVO engines still require conventional diesel to fire up and get to a point where the engine and veggie fuel are warm enough to function properly; in normal winter weather it takes about five to ten minutes. In Alaska, maybe a bit longer.
“We were driving in -40ºC up there sometimes,” Abma says. “Everything ran fine. Every time I switch over, it puts a smile on my face.”
Waste veggie oil is not going to save the planet. The obvious problem is supply and demand – there simply isn’t enough veggie oil on the planet to supply everyone. As well, it’s a bit of a process to collect (see below) and refine.
“You need a bit of space for sure,” Abma explains. “A garage at least, but the beauty is being a part of the whole process, you appreciate every kilometre you drive because it took time and effort to get the oil and clean it. The whole thing is a lot like growing your own food, that garden cucumber that tastes sooooo much better.”
For Mark Abma, just as skiing is about riding the path of least resistance, life is also about balance and simplicity. With his WVO truck dialed in he’s currently working on installing a hydro-generator at his home in Pemby.
“No matter where you are in BC there is a potential to harvest energy,” he explains. “There is no one solution but we need to continually find alternatives wherever we can.”
Next up: “A veggie-fueled helicopter is totally possible,” Mark says, already thinking on how to solve his other major greenhouse-gas contributor. “They run on a kerosene type of mixture… it’ll go for sure.”
Freedom Fry Mission: Abma and Edmondson Find Gold in the Bridge River Valley
It’s early morning at Mark Abma’s place as we jump into his truck with that unspoken air of anticipation and excitement about our trip into the powder-filled mountains of BC’s most beautiful playground.
But rather than clean, deep-and-steep today we’re hunting some thick, dirty and free. With four 1,200+ litre empty containers on a bigass flatbed trailer behind Mark’s waste-veggie-oil-fueled GMC Duramax Diesel, we’re heading into the hills on a quest for liquid gold – the Gold Bridge waste transfer station has over 5,000 litres of WVO ripe for the taking and we’ve been given the nod to extract it.
Once a booming mining community north of Pemberton, today Gold Bridge is nearly abandoned. Even with Bralorne, the now-legendary backcountry powder playground, just 10 miles south-southeast up Cadwallader Creek, the Gold Bridge area remains relatively anonymous just a bunch of dramatic snow-capped peaks and intricate river canyons, rushing streams and deep blue lakes. Few people know the area exists and even fewer would consider it a viable source of WVO but when you’re as dedicated to a vision as Mark Abma is, opportunities like this tend to find you.
“I was just lucky,” he says. “The Gold Bridge storage site was totally full and my roommate’s a waste manager for the SLRD (Squamish-Lillooet Regional District) so it just worked out.”
I also drive a WVO-conversion and while 25 barrels (10,000+ lbs) of stinking restaurant deep-fryer slop may not sound like much of a prize it’s easily the biggest haul of our careers. It’s also an incredible number of kilometres worth of fuel to be had in one pull – imagine suddenly getting a year’s worth of free gas.
The real treat is seeing Mark’s elation in getting down and dirty and working to transfer the sludge. “Veggie oil’s a waste product and we aren’t contributing to more holes being dug in the ground. It makes me feel good.” No glory or film crews on this mountain mission, but Mark’s excitement about alternative fuels and his passion for reusing waste is certainly worth documenting.
“I have lots of friends getting into driving on veggie oil,” Mark says, already thinking of how to share his stoke, and fuel, among his community. “Anyone who’s wanting to throw in some veggie oil, come by the house and we’ll top you up.”
Admittedly, It’s not a typical day playing in the mountains with one of the most accomplished freeskiers on the planet. Rather than fresh, clean powder lines we scored months of a cleaner-burning fuel source. The bumpy drive back home to Pemberton feels the same as after a big pow day, though: all smiles and satisfaction.
And the smell of a few million French fries. –Will Edmondson
Originally published in ML Coast Mountains, Early Winter 2012.