Groomers are Skico’s MVPs
December 23, 2011
ASPEN – One month into ski season, it’s clear that the MVPs for Aspen Skiing Co. are the snowmakers and groomers, Rich Burkley, Skico vice president of mountain operations, said earlier this week.
Mother Nature has been unusually stingy in November and December. While Denver and the Great Plains got pounded by a snowstorm Wednesday night, Colorado’s major ski resorts were grazed. Snowmass picked up 7 inches of badly needed power; Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands received 3 inches.
“I think we’re skiing extremely well for what we have,” Burkley said prior to Wednesday night’s snowfall.
He credited the grooming crews at the four ski areas for working magic with the small base of snow.
“We have a very experienced crew out there,” he said.
That’s important because the pros know how to “feather” the blades and tillers of their snowcats so they don’t scrape off the ground cover. They know from past experience where they need to import snow, such as on parts of Sneaky’s at Snowmass that get wind scoured.
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Burkley said he’s already thanked the grooming crews numerous times this season in internal messages to Skico employees.
Skico didn’t make any more snow than usual this season. The decision really isn’t affected by how much snow falls early or by conditions drying out. Even with record amounts of early snowfall, Skico would stick to its general snowmaking plan because it is always unknown if the natural snowfall will continue through the season, according to Burkley.
“The importance of snowmaking wasn’t more pronounced this year, but it was certainly more noticeable, especially on runs that are skiing beautifully with bare earth right beside them,” he said.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s website reported Thursday that snowpack on Independence Pass is 51 percent of the 30-year average from 1971 to 2000.
Skico fires up the snowmaking guns Nov. 1 and tries to wrap up by Dec. 10. Snowmaking was extended this season to cover Thunder Bowl at Aspen Highlands and the terrain parks at Snowmass and Buttermilk.
Skico typically uses between 150 million and 180 million gallons of water for snowmaking through the season. The strategy is to make enough snow to ensure top-to-bottom skiing through the season, host World Cup ski racing and build the pipes and terrain parks.
“The challenges in a low-snow year are the connections between our high-altitude runs and our man-made surfaces,” Burkley said. “With the exception of Snowmass, we need natural snow to open a reasonable amount of terrain. This season we had pretty good coverage up high, medium coverage in the middle and great temps for snowmaking production.”
At Aspen Mountain, snowmaking extends to the top of Deer Park on the eastern side of the mountain. The Ruthie’s side of the ski area is covered to the top. The benefits of snowmaking are apparent to anyone who straps on boards. The immaculately groomed slopes of Ruthie’s are covered with grippy snow that’s great for arcing turns. There’s only an occasional rock to dodge.
In contrast, the top of the slopes on the eastern half of the mountain have more loose rocks to dodge, and once the groomed surface is skied awhile, it gets firm. The “break-overs,” areas where a slope drops quickly, and the areas where that require repeated hard turns are getting bare, Burkley said.
Snow has been shoveled consistently so far this season onto Buckhorn Cutoff on Aspen Mountain and Adams Avenue at Snowmass to keep them covered. Snowmaking has been used to “touch up” the surface at the top of Little Nell in an effort to keep it softer and grippy.
The thin coverage coupled with a dry forecast and holiday crowds inevitably means conditions will advance to hardpack despite the great job by the groomers.
“Any time you get more traffic, it’s going to get firmer,” Burkley said.
History indicates time is on Skico’s side. Snow usually starts falling more consistently after Christmas.
“Snow cures all. One good storm, and everything’s spackled into shape,” Burkley said, meaning that natural snowfall will fill in the thin areas.