Aspen snowmaking got season off to solid start
December 3, 2009
ASPEN – The Aspen Skiing Co.’s multimillion-dollar investment in its snowmaking system over the years has paid particularly big dividends already this ski season.
Top-to-bottom skiing and the World Cup ski races wouldn’t have been possible last weekend without snowmaking, according to Skico Vice President of Operations Rich Burkley.
Cold temperatures in November allowed the company to crank up its system for a longer period compared to many previous Novembers. The Skico used about 90 million gallons of water for its snowmaking operations through Nov. 30 at Aspen Mountain and Snowmass, Burkley said. It historically uses 150 million to 180 million gallons through the season.
Snowmaking typically stops by the end of December at Aspen Mountain, Snowmass and Aspen Highlands. It continues into January at Buttermilk to make sure the superpipe and base are in prime condition for the Winter X Games.
The Skico invested tens of millions of dollars in snowmaking – as did many resorts in Colorado – after the drought winter of 1976-77. Dry conditions persisted through Christmas that season, creating a nightmare for the ski industry. The snowmaking systems are an insurance policy to offset low-snow winters.
The Skico now has more than 10 miles of pipe for its snowmaking systems at the four ski areas, Burkley said.
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The insurance came in handy this season, as it often does. The top portion of Aspen Mountain could have opened with the natural snow that fell prior to Thanksgiving Day this season, but nothing could have opened below the bottom of the Ajax Express chairlift, Burkley said. Snowmaking covered Spar Gulch and Little Nell, providing top-to-bottom conditions that many skiers considered respectable on opening weekend.
Top-to-bottom skiing at Thanksgiving provides a marketing boost – assuring potential visitors that there are decent early conditions – and also preserves the snow.
“Without top to bottom, the repeat traffic would have been much higher, and who knows how long the natural snow would have held up,” Burkley said. “Snowmaking is essential to connecting the dots, from the natural snow up high to the base areas.”
The giant slalom and slalom courses for the World Cup women’s races on the lower slopes Aspen Mountain were “99 percent” man-made snow, Burkley said. There wasn’t enough natural snow on the lower slopes to stage the races.
“The natural snow wouldn’t last more than two turns with the power of the girls’ turns,” Burkley said. “We also didn’t have enough natural snow to set fencing or gates, or to inject water or build the base platforms.”
While snowmaking clearly creates benefits for skiers, there is also a cost to the environment. It’s difficult to equate the water used in a season of snowmaking in a meaningful way.
The U.S. Geological Survey’s website said 1 million gallons equals about 3 acre feet, so 180 million gallons would be 540 acre feet. An average U.S. family of four uses between one-half and two-thirds of an acre foot annually, according to the Colorado River Water Conservation District. So the Skico’s snowmaking uses roughly the same amount of water as 720 to 1,080 families in a year.
Of course, the water used in the snowmaking process doesn’t disappear. A study by the ski industry in the 1980s indicated as much as 85 percent of the water used in snowmaking is returned to the environment during spring runoff.
The Skico has reservoirs at Aspen Mountain and Snowmass that are tapped for some of its snowmaking. Water supply generally isn’t a problem, although the company is sometimes prohibited from drawing water from Snowmass Creek to maintain minimum streamflows.
But water usage is comparatively a small part of the environmental consequence of snowmaking, according to Auden Schendler, Skico director of environmental affairs. Water usage is “massively trumped by the electricity issue,” he said.
Skico officials figure that snowmaking accounts for about 13 percent of the company’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming. Powering chairlifts account for about the same amount, according to Skico Sustainability Manager Matt Hamilton. Fossil fuel consumption by Skico buildings is the biggest part of the company’s carbon footprint, at about 55 percent of carbon dioxide emissions.
The Skico commissioned a study of its snowmaking practices by an outside consultant to see how it could become more efficient – thus spending less on blowing snow while reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. The company is already taking some steps, such as using reservoirs and waiting for optimum temperatures, and will continue to incorporate to others, Schendler said.