On the Hill: Steamboat snow science
November 17, 2007
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. ” In his office, Doug Allen keeps a photo that shows Mount Werner covered in several feet of powder after a weekend-long dumping of snow. The picture was taken the Monday after Thanksgiving in 2001 ” the only other time in Allen’s 21 years with Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. that Steamboat Ski Area missed its opening day.
“History says when winter arrives, it arrives in earnest,” said Allen, Ski Corp.’s vice president of mountain operations. “The one year when we missed our opening, it was some of the best early season skiing we’ve ever had.”
Snowmaking equipment was first installed at the ski area in 1981 to give the resort a good shot at opening by Thanksgiving. Despite that insurance, 2007 will serve as proof that no amount of snowmaking technology can overcome Mother Nature. Manmade or not, snow is snow, and it melts when it’s warm.
Citing warm and dry weather conditions, Ski Corp. announced Thursday that it will delay it’s opening nine days, from Nov. 21 to Nov. 30. Speaking at Ski Corp. offices Friday, Allen said he knew as early as Tuesday that the Thanksgiving opening wasn’t going to happen.
That day, Allen did some calculations. It takes about 18 to 20 million gallons of converted water to make enough snow for an opening. That volume requires about 250 system hours of snowmaking. As of Tuesday, there had been about 10 hours.
Even under perfect conditions, there just weren’t enough hours between Tuesday and the scheduled opening to make enough snow.
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Allen said 15 degrees is ideal and 25 degrees is “marginal” for snowmaking. An unseasonably warm fall has made those temperatures hard to come by.
Snowmaking is a complicated process that involves complex machinery and jargon. Simply, it requires only three necessary ingredients: low temperatures, water and compressed air, which atomizes water as it comes out of a snow gun and rapidly drops its temperature.
Allen said Ski Corp.’s annual electric bill for snowmaking is $500,000.
Low temperature has been the missing ingredient, Allen said. Contrary to popular perception, he added, the Yampa Valley’s geography is such that at night and other times when the air is still, temperatures are actually warmer on the mountain because denser cold air settles near the valley floor. Allen called the phenomenon a “stratification of temperature layers.”
“A lot of people don’t understand that, because they get in their car in the morning and it says 18 degrees,” Allen said. “It isn’t 18 degrees up here. We’re in a unique situation because of the size of this valley.”
Ski Corp. spokesman Mike Lane called Allen the company’s “resident weatherman,” and stressed that crews are ready to make snow as soon as the weather permits.
“Our snowmaking guys and gals are ready to go as soon as the temperatures drop,” Lane said.
In the meantime, Allen exudes a calm optimism about the upcoming ski season, noting that the La Nina phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean has provided plentiful powder for Steamboat in the past.
“Some of our heaviest snow seasons on record have been in La Nina years, but they typically start late,” Allen said.
While the weather has frustrated opening day ambitions, Allen said it has “absolutely” been a blessing to the record $16 million in on-mountain projects undertaken this year. Crews were still busy Friday working on Headwall ” where a total re-grading project necessitated the moving of 130,000 cubic yards of earth ” but Allen reiterated that the work has nothing to do with the delayed opening.
“We’re not delaying the opening for lift construction or anything else,” Allen said. “It’s snow and warm weather.”
While they now have nine extra days to work, Lane said work will still be completed before the originally scheduled opening.
Allen said even if the work were behind schedule, the opening is not contingent on projects such as the re-grading. If winter had hit early, rather than late, Allen said Ski Corp. would have just smoothed over Headwall as best they could and finished the project next year.
“With the way the weather has been, we’ll have a chance to complete it,” Allen said.
The muddy Headwall has been seeded, but there will be no grass under the snow base there this season. Allen said that will mean a loss of a “little bit of insulation factor,” but shouldn’t make a big difference.
Those who purchased a Steamboat-only ski pass this year won’t be able to offset the resort’s late opening by upgrading to the Rocky Mountain Ultimate Pass that includes unlimited access to Copper Mountain and Winter Park, which are both open. While those passes still cost just $50 more than a Steamboat-only pass, Lane said there is no ability for those who already own a pass to upgrade.