Skico debates when to snow
Snowmaking guns have been planted along some slopes at Aspen Mountain and Snowmass ski area, but it will take more than cold air before Aspen Skiing Co. officials hit the “on” button.
It’s going to take some hot air, too.
Skico officials will hold an internal debate Oct. 7 to review their snowmaking strategy. The company plans to apply more complex science to the decision of when to flip the switch, according to Mike Kaplan, vice president of mountain operations.
Snowmaking has been somewhat of a guessing game in the past. Crews were often assembled and left standing around for a good share of the night, waiting for the right temperature and conditions. Sometimes their services were needed, sometimes not.
“If it’s not cold enough, it’s like having a party and not having any booze there,” Kaplan explained. “Everyone shows up, but it’s a waste of time.”
Sometimes it isn’t time but money and effort that’s wasted. The Skico has typically started making snow in October, when conditions are acceptable but not always ideal.
The magic mark is considered 28 degrees “wet-bulb” temperature. That’s generally determined by looking at dry-bulb temperature, what you see on your thermometer, and factoring in humidity and air pressure.
When snow is made in borderline conditions, it’s more expensive to properly operate the machinery that pumps out the combination of water and compressed air. In addition, that man-made snow often ends up disappearing when temperatures temporarily warm up before dropping for good for winter.
That’s what happened last year when the Skico scrambled to prepare for the return of World Cup ski racing. Because the races were during Thanksgiving, the Skico jumped at every opportunity to make snow in late fall.
But the warm, relatively dry weather ate up the snow that was made in October. Skico snowmakers still had to scramble in mid-November to create courses that turned out remarkably well.
Snowmaking at Aspen Mountain typically requires 50 million gallons of water, same as at Snowmass, per season. Last year’s efforts at Aspen Mountain required 55 million gallons, according to Kaplan.
Research by Hal Hartman, snow safety program director at Snowmass, casts doubt on the wisdom of ever making snow in October in the upper Roaring Fork Valley.
“Unfortunately, sufficiently cold weather during October and early November is the exception,” Hartman wrote in a report to Skico officials. “As air temperature begins to increase and approach 32 degrees Fahrenheit, manufacturing man-made snow becomes increasingly expensive and polluting, to physically impossible.
“Nonetheless, snowmaking personnel are inclined to push system limitations in the face of uncertainty and marginal atmospheric conditions …,” Hartman wrote.
But he is working on a forecast system that could ease the guessing-game for snowmakers, according to Kaplan. The formula looks at wet bulb temperature in the afternoon, factors in the anticipated weather and forecasts wet bulb temperatures for that night.
Hartman experimented with a system at Snowmass last year that forecast by roughly 3 p.m. each day whether or not conditions would be favorable for producing man-made snow that night and, if so, for how long.
Kaplan said the Skico will use that system at Aspen Mountain this season as well as at Snowmass. He believes it will help the efficiency of snowmaking efforts.
“We’re not going to call all-hands-on deck if Hal’s planning says we’re only going to have three hours,” Kaplan said.
But it’s yet to be determined at what point in the fall the Skico will start considering snowmaking. Mountain managers often want to take every opportunity once temperatures drop low enough.
Rob Baxter, who moved from Aspen Mountain to Snowmass this summer, explained that he would hate to have an opening delayed in November because snowmaking opportunities were squandered in October. To him, it’s worth the risk to make snow whenever possible starting in mid-October.
Hartman has pressed the point of keeping a cap in snowmaking guns until Nov. 1 or so, according to Kaplan. Hartman’s report said conditions typically become ideal for snowmaking by Nov. 4.
“It’s going to be an interesting debate,” said Kaplan, who will ultimately make the decision on when to flip the snowmaking switch.
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