October is many things.
It’s Halloween. It’s Indian Summer. It’s days made of gold when the leaves rain down under the low-angle sun.
October is also the month when many ski areas and resorts fire up their snow guns.
And in Colorado, Vermont and sometimes other states too, October is the beginning of ski season.
Helping Mother Nature
Snowmaking is an important part of ski area operations. Whether you call the snow manmade or machine-made, it’s a creation: a manipulation of water, air, electricity and temperature.
Machine made snow is made for many reasons, some of which vary regionally.
In the West, the emphasis is on early season preparation and providing as much high quality snow as possible for guests on opening day.
“Our snowmaking department is an insurance policy for the resort,” shares Scott Enos, Snowmaking Manager at Utah’s Deer Valley Resort.
“Our opening date is set about two years in advance and it’s our job to ensure that guests who’ve made reservations have quality snow to ski on.”
Snowmaking in the east, by contrast, is a season long operation, in response to variable temperatures and weather.
Machine Made Snow
Here’s what a ski area needs to make snow: hydrants, hoses, pipes and snow guns. And that’s just the infrastructure. The resort also needs plenty of water, electricity and air.
And not just any air, but air of the proper temperature.
Snowmaking is dependent upon wet bulb temperature, or the temperature of the air when it’s wet at 100% humidity.
In most of the world, snow is made when the temperature falls to 28 degrees wet bulb Fahrenheit or -2 degrees wet bulb celsius.
Currently, this is the maximum temperature for snowmaking, although this may be changing with reports from Norway of new technology that can make snow at higher temperatures.
Technological advances aside, most U.S. resorts aim for an even lower temperature, around 15-18 degrees wet bulb Fahrenheit.
“This is the temperature at which our snow guns run at 100% efficiency,” explains Enos.
“It’s cold enough that equipment runs properly and not so cold that the equipment freezes up. Plus, we always have to remember the snowmaking crew. We don’t want their fingers and faces getting too cold.”
Types of Snow Guns
Snow guns come in two varieties: fan guns and air/water guns.
Fan guns have the broadest coverage, capable of throwing snow up to 250 feet away.
Looking to lay down early season base? Fans guns are the ticket.
Air/water guns have a more targeted reach, useful for building terrain park features from big piles of snow.
Many resorts use a combination of snow guns depending on their specific needs at any given time.
Dave Lacombe, the Snow Surface Manager at Killington Resort, explains.
“Killington has an arsenal of snow guns. Different styles and different brands which have different operating characteristics can be used in different scenarios depending upon current humidity, temperature and wind conditions.
“Our goal is to convert as much water to snow as possible, at any given time.”
While air, electricity and machinery get the job done, water, and lots of it, remains snow’s foundational ingredient.
Think about this: it takes 200,000 gallons of water to cover one acre of land, one foot deep with machine-made snow.
In the West, where water is allocated by a complex system of law and water rights, resorts have to be efficient, maximizing their water rights and working closing with municipalities and water providers to utilize additional rights at off-peak times.
Enos explains that Deer Valley stores water in on-mountain ponds ranging in size from 15.7 million gallons to 20 million gallons.
“When conditions are ideal, at 15 degrees wet bulb Fahrenheit, we can pump 10 million gallons of water in just 24 hours,” according to Enos. “These ponds drain quickly.”
Eastern resorts are equally judicious with their water resources.
After expanding their snowmaking capacity in 2013, Vermont’s Okemo Mountain Resort converted a 70 million gallon snowmaking pond to a 155 million gallon reservoir.
In a typical year, the resort converts 350 to 450 million gallons of water into snow, using water at a rate of 7,000 to 9,000 gallons per minute under ideal conditions.
Okemo Mountain Resort Snowmaking Manager Ray Kennedy believes the investment, effort and water are worth it.
“With the efficiencies our snow guns provide, we can maximize our potential.
“This puts us in a position to provide our guests with a better skiing and riding experience early in the season and throughout the winter.”
Want to Be a Snow Maker?
For more information on the technical aspects of resort operation including chairlifts and snow grooming, please visit the Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month website. Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month has a wealth of information including learn to ski and snowboard deals, promotions and activities in all regions of the U.S.
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