Vail’s snowmaking project a ‘game-changer’
In November 2016, when cold temps were slow to arrive, Vail Mountain was closed to skiing and snowboarding during the run-up to Thanksgiving.
For guests who had already booked a trip, scenic gondola rides and guided snowshoe trips were available on the Wednesday before the holiday. World Cup ski racing — the only men’s downhill in North America — was canceled at nearby Beaver Creek, and businesses throughout the area were struggling from missing the valley’s first two big draws: Thanksgiving and the Birds of Prey ski races.
The following year was even worse in some ways. Vail Mountain had to postpone its scheduled opening once again — the resort had targeted the Friday before Thanksgiving, and was finally able to get the Born Free run open five days later on Wednesday. While temps were colder, and World Cup organizers were able to impress the ski racing community by pulling off a good event at Beaver Creek, snow would be slow to arrive over the course of the next month.
Despite a canceled World Cup at Beaver Creek, 2016 saw Vail’s Back Bowls open well before Christmas. On Christmas Eve 2017, however, Game Creek Bowl, the Northwoods area and many of the other popular runs on the front side of Vail Mountain had not yet opened for the season. The Back Bowls were another story.
If you think missing the run-up to Thanksgiving negatively affects Vail business, imagine the feeling of seeing frontside chairs 7, 10, 11, 14 and 26, along with the entire backside of Vail Mountain and Blue Sky Basin, still closed on the day before Christmas. Vail Resorts sprung into action, putting together an ambitious plan to install 32.5 miles of snowmaking pipeline and 14 new valve stations across 262 acres of the mountain. Vail submitted the plan to the U.S. Forest Service — the resort operates on federal land through a special use permit — and the Forest Service issued draft approval of Vail’s snowmaking plan in December of 2018.
Biggest project since high-speed quads
The average daytime high temperature across Eagle County on Oct. 15, 2016, was 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Exactly three years later, Vail is wrapping up work on the most ambitious snowmaking project ever undertaken in North America, with new fan guns lining the sides of many popular runs on the mountain and never-before-seen swing-arm guns positioned in key locations along connection roads.
It is the biggest project to take place on Vail Mountain since the mid-’80s, when Vail installed its first detachable chairlifts in four locations on the front side of the mountain.
“It’s the largest single project that Vail Resorts is doing on any of our mountains this year,” said Greg Johnson with Vail Mountain. “And we’re now learning from talking to our suppliers that it’s the single largest snowmaking project that’s ever been completed in North America in a single year.”
One of the first things guests will notice this year at Vail are the large fan guns now lining the sides of some of the runs.
“There’s roughly 20 of these new guns just on Bear Tree,” Johnson said.
The guns are connected directly to a new water line that has been installed beneath the runs, along with a power feed, also buried underground.
As temperatures get colder, snowmaking guns can become much more productive if more water is allowed to flow through them. But in the past, allowing more water to flow through a gun as temperatures dropped involved a manual adjustment of the valve through which the water flows. The science was less than exact.
“These new guns have onboard weather stations, so they have a gauge that senses temperature and relative humidity,” Johnson said. “As it gets colder, they turn themselves up, and as it gets warmer, they turn themselves down.”
Much of the new snowmaking technology is focused on higher elevation runs, which see colder temperatures and are therefore ideal for early season snowmaking. With Mid-Vail being 2,000 feet higher and sometimes as much as 10 degrees colder than Lionshead, the top of Gondola One will become the new base area at Vail, allowing the mountain to open earlier in the future.
“At Mid-Vail we have Swingsville, a real beginner product, which we didn’t have before,” Johnson said. “And Ramshorn is a real blue trail, so the quality of the product will be much better than we had before, over on Lionshead.”
But lower elevation runs like Bear Tree and the beginner terrain at Golden Peak were both important to the project, as well.
“We upgraded the technology (on Bear Tree) to help that early-season connection, to help everybody get back to town,” Johnson said.
After the Mid-Vail area, Vail intends to open Chair 8 and Chair 2, Cub’s Way, Columbine and Meadows, so that Swingsville and Ramshorn can be accessed easily from Lionshead.
“It will create the link-ups to other parts of the mountain quicker for us,” Johnson said.
Purpose-built ‘swing arm’ gun
As many of Vail’s crucial connection points are roads, a new technology was needed to better cover those roads with snow. Johnson said the resort thought long and hard about how to replace its old method of covering roads, where ground guns were moved around the mountain.
“With ground guns, you have hoses above the ground that you have to dig out when it snows,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to dig out and move the gun and the hose, and it’s just a huge amount of labor. … It was critical for Vail Mountain that we had a tool to cover roads better, and more quickly.”
Working with its supplier, Vail came up with a new technology that it’s calling a swing arm gun.
“Now you can come down, turn the swing arm gun on at the hydrant, and just keep walking,” Johnson said. “You can direct them easily, and once they’re adjusted and pointed in the right direction, you can turn them on and off almost as quickly as you can walk down the trail.”
Johnson said having the guns in fixed locations, yet highly adjustable through the swing arm, will make one of the hardest jobs on the mountain — that of a snowmaker — significantly easier.
“A lot of the old way we did things was just plain brutal, physical labor,” Johnson said. “With this new system, we’ve taken that labor out of it, which will more than anything help our snowmakers do a better job quicker, and it will increase the production, because we won’t be relying on the hard labor that they had to do to get these guns set up, moved, taken down and put somewhere else, which was always holding us up as we moved from one place to another.”
Vail Mountain Chief Operating Officer Beth Howard says the technology will be a game-changer for everyone who skis and snowboards on Vail Mountain, and for the local economy which depends on Vail Mountain having a large amount of terrain available in the early season.
“The experience the guest is going to have, when we have all those guns going and we’ve got that great surface down, early season, that’s going to be the magic,” Howard said.
Howard has been trying to get the word out to the community about the positive impact the new snowmaking system will have on all of Vail and Eagle County.
“For me, it was getting out into the community and saying, ‘Hey, you know what this means for all of us?’ We can activate early season. It’s going to be more terrain than they’ve ever had; it’s going to be different,” Howard said.
Johnson said Vail Mountain always had the larger community in mind when envisioning the project.
“It’s going to help in a lot of ways, and it’s bigger than just for Vail Mountain,” he said. “It’s about what we can do in the community.”
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