Snowmaker retires after covering slopes of Aspen-Snowmass for nearly 25 years
One of the unsung heroes of winters in Aspen and Snowmass is riding off to the West.
Frank White retired after the 2018-19 season after 25 years with Aspen Skiing Co. He worked all but one of those years in snowmaking, heading the efforts at Aspen Mountain a few years after joining the company and, since 2007, at Snowmass.
At Ajax he dealt with the pressure of making enough snow to host the World Cup ski races when Mother Nature was being fickle. At Snowmass, he had to figure out how to build up enough of a base at critical areas to keep Skico’s cash cow operating through the higher temperatures of late season.
“I was always a person who wasn’t put off by a challenge,” White said. “The challenge of making snow whatever the conditions that Mother Nature threw at me.”
The seasons blur together, but White said one season sticks out about his experiences on Aspen Mountain. Shortly after he became head of snowmaking, it was so dry in November that he drove his Harley Davidson up to the snowmaking garage on Aspen Mountain the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
The crew did what it could — cranking out small piles here and there when the temperatures were favorable enough. The snowmakers and course workers performed their magic and created routes that were certified fit for the races by the International Ski Federation. Of course, it dumped a foot of snow the night before the races commenced so their ribbon of white wasn’t evident.
In his first years in snowmaking, White acknowledged the pressure kind of got to him. He felt it was his fault if they “couldn’t get the snow down” for a successful opening. After a few years on the job, he realized Aspen skiers are savvy and knew the snowmakers were doing all they could. He also came to realize that the snow, cold weather for snowmaking or both almost always materialized, even if just in the nick of time. He stopped worrying even if others didn’t.
“It just seems like people are quick to panic when Mother Nature doesn’t kick in,” he said.
When former Skico mountain manager Steve Sewell transferred from Aspen Mountain to Snowmass, he recruited White to come with him. It was another challenge to be relished.
“I always wanted to run the bigger system,” White said.
Snowmass has greater snowmaking needs because of super pipes, terrain parks, more lift mazes and flatter terrain to get to the base. The biggest challenge at Snowmass typically was making enough snow to last through the season rather than getting enough made to open, he said.
White takes pride in constantly looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the snowmaking operations over the years. When he started, the snowmaking guns were using 600 cubic feet of air per minute. Now they’re down to 25 to 30 cubic feet per minute. Less air means less energy consumption.
The return on investment on the efficient guns was less than two years because it allowed Skico to reduce the number of compressors required for the operations.
(Pitkin County and Aspen’s Community Office for Resource Efficiency wrote about Skico’s snowmaking efficiency in a recent article highlighted on their website at aspencore.org/snowmaking-outside-of-the-box)
White also was a stickler for making snow when energy-billing cycles were most economical. That eliminated starting before the end of October and set a deadline in late December.
“I always treated the Ski Company’s money like it was my own,” White said.
It also has become a vital part of the business. Skico aims to expand the snowmaking system to the top of Aspen Mountain so it can guarantee top-to-bottom skiing even on dry years. Currently the upper third of the slopes aren’t covered by the system.
Snowmass expanded its system last year and has future expansions planned.
Snowmaking is a way to guarantee starting and finishing the season as scheduled, White said.
He didn’t need time to think when asked if he preferred snowmaking during conditions like 2017-18, which was among the driest on record, or 2018-19, which was among the wettest.
“I enjoy them all,” White said. But he allowed this: “Last season was the finest season in my career for making snow.”
Even with it being above average for natural snowfall, a heavy dose of snowmaking was required for the pipes, parks and other amenities at Snowmass. Mother Nature didn’t make the snowmaking department obsolete.
White, 70, decided to go out on the top of his game after a great season of snowmaking. He and his wife found an ideal house and acreage in Hotchkiss about three years ago. Now there will be no more long commutes to Snowmass. Instead, it is White’s base for some long road bike rides, Harley trips and mountain bike journeys.
He first got interested in Colorado as a bike shop owner in Ohio. The two times he visited were during the Pearl Pass Tour in the late 1980s, when intrepid riders from Crested Butte would ride early mountain bikes over the rugged pass, lunch in Aspen and head back. He moved to Colorado in 1990 and worked in the cycling business in Aspen before joining Skico in the Aspen Mountain vehicle maintenance department in 1994.
He feels fortunate that he got to experience the mountains as a snowmaker. He will always remember the magical moments of solitude at daybreak, looking downvalley from near the top of Ruthie’s or watching the rising sun create purple, orange and red hues from Copper Saddle.
“I love what I did and it was a really hard decision to retire,” White said.
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