Until Mother Nature can help, U.S. resorts rely on snowmaking
November 23, 2007
CHARLESTON, W.Va. ” Who needs Mother Nature when you’ve got an air compressor and plenty of water.
Machines that can convert thousands of gallons per minute into a blanket of snow are in use at ski resorts all across the country as operators prepare for the first wave of guests.
The humming at Snowshoe Mountain resort rarely stops as long as temperatures at 4,800 feet are below freezing.
The sound is music to Ed Galford, the resort’s vice president of operations who often collaborates with other Intrawest-owned resorts from Vermont to British Columbia on how and when to make snow.
“We don’t want to have any missed moments of snowmaking weather,” said Galford, who is in his 34th ski season at Snowshoe. “That goes for everybody in the ski industry, especially in the Southeast. That’s the challenge, getting the cold weather at the right time.”
Without snowmaking equipment, the industry would be crippled.
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Resorts operators nationwide have to rely on reservoirs and expensive, high-powered contraptions to coat their slopes the high-tech way until Mother Nature dumps the natural stuff. And the way it’s looking, much of the nation is awaiting its first good shot of snow.
“The simple fact of the matter is the industry wouldn’t exist almost in any part of the country if not for snowmaking,” said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, based in Lakewood, Colo. “It’s fundamental.”
Most modern snowmaking systems use a reservoir to store their water supply on site. When fully operational, Snowshoe uses nearly 9,000 gallons of water per minute for snowmaking on more than 400 snow guns and 40 miles of pipe on its 60 trails.
After rebounding from a rocky start to last year’s season, the race is on to stay ahead of the weather this year.
Appalachian Ski Mountain in North Carolina underwent the largest snowmaking expansion in its 45-year history by doubling its water pumping capacity.
Snowmaking has been around about that long, with each generation of equipment bringing the ability to make snow with a mix of water and compressed air.
The new owners at Killington, Vt., made snow for two weeks before its opening. Rather than getting the doors open quickly, the emphasis was on establishing a good foundation.
“Instead of ‘gun and run,’ we’re really concentrating on base building and trying to produce as much snow so we can have a deep, sustainable base,” said Killington spokesman Tom Horrocks. “We’re confident we have a deep base that will withstand some of the near future weather changes.”
Even in the West, where natural snow is often measured in feet instead of inches, warm weather created challenges for snowmaking machines and postponed openings at several resorts, including at Vail and Steamboat Springs, Colo., and Park City, Utah.
Slopes were expected to open this week at Snowshoe and Canaan Valley resorts in West Virginia and Wintergreen in Virginia. Other openings were tentatively set for Dec. 6 at Timberline Four Seasons and the following day at Winterplace, and Dec. 8 at Bryce Resort, Va.
Resorts are always looking for ways to add snowmaking capacity while not blowing up the budget.
In Massachusetts, three 123-foot wind turbine blades help generate power for the Jiminy Peak resort, which opened Nov. 17. Officials hope that cuts the resort’s energy costs in half.
Mount Snow in West Dover, Vt., had its earliest start to the season in nearly a decade after its new owners spent $3.5 million on 101 snowmaking guns, which require less compressed air while producing more manmade snow in marginal temperatures, said resort General Manager Kelly Pawlak.
Last year Seven Springs in western Pennsylvania cranked up a new snowmaking system with the ability to use 30,000 gallons of water per minute and blanket 400 acres with a foot of snow in two days.
The further east you go, the more a resort is likely to have blanket snowmaking coverage.
Getting all the equipment is the easy part. Trying to get Mother Nature to cooperate is tough.
“She holds the ace up her sleeve,” said Terry Pfeiffer, president of Winterplace Resort in southern West Virginia. “If it doesn’t get cold, it doesn’t matter how sophisticated your snowmaking system is, you still need that cold.”