Odd weather created interesting situation for grooming, snowmaking on Aspen area slopes | AspenTimes.com
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Odd weather created interesting situation for grooming, snowmaking on Aspen area slopes

Snowcat drivers groom Aspen Mountain at dusk earlier this season. A Skico executive said groomers 'saved the season' because of their work with low snow levels.
Aubree Dallas/The Aspen Times |

ASPEN SKIING CO. SNOWMAKING

2014-15 SEASON

Snowmass 85 million gallons

Buttermilk 65 million gallons

Aspen Mountain 50 million gallons

Highlands 13 million gallons

Total 213 million gallons

Aspen Skiing Co. hasn’t been able to make additional snow to offset the lack of natural snow this year, so the pressure has been on the snowcat operators to salvage conditions.

“Somebody always saves our season, and this year, it’s the groomers,” said Rich Burkley, Skico vice president of mountain operations. “I couldn’t be happier with the surface we’re putting out there.”

Groomers have had less snow to work with, so they have made their usual rounds quicker and more efficient than ever, according to Burkley.

“When you’re pushing more snow, you’re going slower,” he said.

During a season with average snowfall, groomers use their cats to “knock the air” out of the powder and make sure they don’t leave ridges from their different passes.

Dry conditions produce a different kind of meticulous attention. The operators must “feather” their equipment to make sure they aren’t digging into the thin snow cover and they must travel with extra caution to make sure their tracks don’t tear up the terrain.

“Where the cat guys’ genius comes in is they move snow out of the little pockets,” Burkley said. The drivers are so familiar with the rolls and undulations of the slopes that they know where they can grab snow and push it to thinner sections. Their work has been vital to keeping the slopes of all four Skico mountains skiable, he said.

And because the groomers complete their usual rounds quicker during low snow, they have time to groom additional and steeper terrain. Rarely groomed trails such as Aztec and Back of Bell have been targeted this season on Aspen Mountain. Slot and other parts of Sam’s Knob have been groomed at Snowmass. Suzie Q was groomed at Aspen Highlands.

The snowcat operators use a winch cat to deal with the steeper slopes. One cat is parked at the top of the slope and remains stationary. A second cat is attached to the anchor by a cable. The working cats creeps down the steep pitch and grooms the steep slope. It would slide on the steeper slopes if not attached to the other cat.

Burkley was upfront that natural snow needs to start falling soon because the conditions won’t hold up as the sun angle goes higher. Snowmaking isn’t an option at this time of year because the temperatures aren’t low enough for long enough, he said. The top of Little Nell on Aspen Mountain was “refreshed” with snowmaking Wednesday night, but that was an exception.

It was one of the most unusual seasons for the snowmaking crews in recent memory, Burkley said. Conditions were warm well into November, then dropped to ideal single digits for 100 straight hours, allowing the crews to crank.

“For awhile there it looked like we were going to be done with snowmaking on Aspen Mountain in November, which is unheard of,” Burkley said.

December brought big changes. Temperatures were too warm for snowmaking for 18 straight days, so crews were suddenly behind. “My dream is always to shut down before Christmas,” Burkley said.

Snowmaking at Buttermilk was so far behind that shaping of the superpipe for the Winter X Games was about three weeks behind schedule.

Skico varies the amount of snow it makes a little bit each season, with the general guideline of making sure there’s enough snow for all events and to get to the end of the season.

“In a normal year, we’re excellent at knowing when to shut down,” Burkley said.

This season is anything but normal. Not only was January the second driest in Aspen since 1935, the temperatures were warmer than usual. The pattern has persisted into February.

“In my mind, this isn’t sustainable,” Burkley said. “I don’t think we could do this for another month.”

Skico used 213 million gallons of water for its snowmaking operations this season, about 2 percent more than what it planned on. Less water than anticipated was used at Buttermilk and Highlands. That was offset by using more than planned at Aspen Mountain and Snowmass, according to Burkley. The most water was used at Snowmass with 85 million gallons. Ziegler Reservoir was the primary source.

Sixty-five million gallons were used at Buttermilk. Skico has water rights to Maroon Creek that are the primary source for that water. The demand at Buttermilk is amplified by the needs for the X Games for the various skier, snowboarder and snowmobile courses.

Skico uses potable water supplied by the city of Aspen for snowmaking at Aspen Mountain. About 50 million gallons were used there. At Highlands, 13 million gallons were needed for snowmaking on the ski slopes. The primary source is raw water from the city’s Thomas Reservoir. An additional 11 million gallons were used to make snow from the new Aspen Valley Ski Club racecourse for early training, Burkley said.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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