Tag Archives | snowmaking

Good Riddance to a Dismal Season* (*in the east).

Mad River glen

Photo: Mad River Glen

Yep, the sign on the left at Mad River Glen pretty much sums it up. Mother Nature, you’ve brought us to our knees. We surrender. I personally give up. My ski season is over.

I know, a First World problem, right? Boo hoo — instead of skiing 88 days like I did last year, I only clocked 53.

Yes, I’m whining. But here in the East, the worst ski season in years has had terrible repercussions, not just for skiers, but for the resorts and businesses that depend on them for income. Peak Resorts, for example, which owns 14 eastern resorts, reported revenue down 16 percent from the same quarter last year. Overall visits to Peak properties dropped 23 percent compared to the same quarter in 2015.  And they’re by no means alone.

Call it what you want — The Year of No Winter,  The Winter That Never Was — I’ll just call it dreadful. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, all six New England states set records for warmth, a marked reversal from last winter, one of New England’s harshest. You can read more details in this article in the Washington Post.

In Vermont, the season started bad and never got better. Christmas Day saw temperatures climb into the 70’s. The Nor’easters that typically bring blockbuster storms never materialized. We were plagued with freeze/thaw cycles. And we got far too much rain.

The results speak for themselves. Sugarbush, for example, got roughly half the snow they typically get during an average winter. And as of March 31, Jay Peak was at 55% of normal snowfall and is likely to have the lowest snowfall season in its 35 years of data. Even worse, some smaller ski areas never even managed to open.

For the larger areas, it was all about the snowmaking. Without it, I don’t think we’d have had any ski season at all (for my post about how the snowmakers at Stowe handled the season, go here). To the snowmakers out there, two ski poles up. Thanks for all your efforts. You truly are miracle workers.

Yes, I know. The ski areas in the West have had a banner season. Reports are coming in left and right of resorts that are extending their ski season. And I’m glad for it. Last year was a bad one out there, so yes, they deserve it. Still, I get heartache watching the photos of major dumpage parade by on my Facebook feed.

In the East, though, many ski resorts have wrapped up the season early. Ski shops, loaded with unsold merchandise and struggling to stay afloat, are having blowout sales. And me, I’ve put my skis to bed. If I could manage another trip out west, I would. But since that isn’t going to happen, it’ll probably be seven long months before I ski again.

Goodbye, winter. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out. Here’s to a better ’16/’17.


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Snowmaking at Stowe: How to handle a tough season

There’s no denying it’s been a tough winter here in the East. Snow depth hasn’t been anywhere close to last year’s, some of the smaller resorts haven’t opened at all, and conditions have often been sketchy, at best. For a sense of the misery this is inflicting on eastern Ski Divas (me, included), check out the East Coast Whine thread on TheSkiDiva forum.

That said, I recently skied Stowe Mountain Resort, and I’m glad to report it was quite good. Why? Well, a few inches of natural snow certainly helped. But even without this happy dusting, the mountain has managed to keep skiers pretty well satisfied all season long, thanks largely to its state-of-the-art snowmaking ability.

Me skiing Stowe with Heather Burke of LuxurySkiTrips.com.

Me skiing Stowe with Heather Burke of LuxurySkiTrips. Click on the picture to see my interview with Heather.

This year’s warm weather and lack of snow have made snowmaking more critical than usual at Stowe. According to Scott Reeves, the mountain’s vice president of operations, snow depth at the top of Mount Mansfield is currently only about 24 inches. “To put that in perspective,” he said, “we generally record anywhere between 250 and 300 inches at the summit. We’re not even close to that, and there’s no way we’re going to make it up. Terrain with snowmaking has been king this year. That’s what’s been open since day one. Our natural terrain has been fluctuating.”

Stowe has invested heavily in its snowmaking operation, spending $10.5 million over the the past three years. This includes 600 HKD air/water energy efficient tower snow guns, 150 Ratnik air/water energy efficient land frame snow guns, 36 fan tower snow guns, and a new booster pump house. The mountain has doubled its water pumping capacity from 1,500 to 3,000 gpm (gallons per minute), added snowmaking to five trails, and replaced snowmaking pipe on 22 other trails. It’s also installed a state-of-the-art snowmaking control center that automates much of its snowmaking operation. By merely clicking a mouse, an operator can remotely start and stop guns at various locations and cause them to oscillate or rotate. The system also measures humidity, temperature and wind, and uses the data to adjust the amount of water and air needed to produce the desired quality snow. Thanks to the new technology and a 110-million-gallon reservoir, the resort can cover 56 acres in a foot of snow in only 24 hours.

Stowe's snowmaking operations center

Stowe’s snowmaking operations center

Despite this, the human touch is still important. Scott and his staff meet every morning at 11 to access snow conditions and evaluate weather forecasts. The staff also goes out on the snow each day to check snow quality. “I ski almost every day and my assistant skis every day,” said Scott,”so we’re constantly checking the quality of the snow. Even though the computer tells us we’re making dry snow, there’s no substitute for getting out on it ourselves.”

Snowmaking at Stowe. Photo by Martin Griff

Snowmaking at Stowe.
Photo by Martin Griff

How does Stowe decide where and when to make snow? “It’s pretty much based on market demand,” Scott said. “For opening week, we want a good mixture of intermediate and expert terrain, because that’s when our season passholder base starts up. As we get toward Thanksgiving, we begin thinking about terrain for families and beginners, so we expand snowmaking to what’s more suited for them. Certainly, in a normal season, we want 100% of our snowmaking terrain open by the December holiday. After that, we focus on quality and what we need in order to get to closing day.” As for the rest of the season, Scott says the mountain has been making snow like crazy for the past two weeks to achieve what he calls their  “spring depths.” “Our scheduled closing is April 24,” he said.  “I feel very confident that if we have a normal spring, we’ll make that date.”

Stowe isn’t the only Vermont ski area where snowmaking plays an important role. More than 80 percent of the trails in the state are covered by snowmaking. That’s the most of any state in the union by far, 20 percent more than New Hampshire, and way more than any ski area out West. In the past few years, the state’s ski areas have participated in a program with Efficiency Vermont that’s provided rebates for purchasing newer, more energy efficient snowmaking equipment. Thanks to this partnership, Stowe has been able to eliminate the diesel compressors it previously used for its snowmaking operations, saving the resort 100,000 gallons of fuel per year and greatly improving its carbon footprint. Scott also noted that the partnership has allowed the resort to make its computer control system more efficient, as well as help purchase more energy efficient snow guns. “Basically, for every gun we used to run we can now run three.” he said. “That helps us put snow out there faster and increases our snowmaking capability.”

Stowe’s snowmaking has brought it national recognition, too. In 2014,  Outside Magazine awarded the resort its 2014 Ski-Season Travel Award for Best Backup Plan because of its (then) two-year spending spree on snowmaking. The magazine highlighted Stowe as spending “more than any other resort in the East,” and praised its ability to work “more efficiently even in temperatures up to 28 degrees.”

So thank your local snowmaker, especially here in the East. Without them, we might not be skiing at all this year.

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Time To Make The Snow: A Woman’s Perspective

Snowmaking is a tough job. It’s a delicate balance between air, water, temperature, pressure, and weather. And if the results aren’t perfect, you could end up costing the resort customers. What’s more, there are hoses to lug, all sorts of mechanical devices to deal with, and hey, it’s cold out there!

All this is something Shannon at Whiteface Mountain, NY, knows only too well. For the past four years, she’s been the only female member of the resort’s snowmaking team. And she loves it.

We asked Shannon some questions about her job:

Q: Can you explain a bit about how snowmaking works?
A: Snow is made by water and air under really high pressure. It gets pushed up the mountain and out the snow guns. On average, from start to finish, you can get okay coverage in about five days, provided the conditions are right. A week is nice. It all depends on the wind, humidity, temperature, and weather. It has to be really cold, so sometimes we’ll get freezing in the guns and hoses, even in the line. We try to keep everything cleared out and as clean as possible so it keeps circulating. Once it’s going, it’s usually pretty good.

Q: How is it being the only woman on the snowmaking team?
A: It’s good, although it’s really easy to be singled out or for people to keep tabs on you.  The guys can be mistaken for one another. Not me. Initially, I think it was harder, now maybe a bit easier — but I have a little seniority, too.  When I first started, most of the guys were not too happy, but it got better each year. The people that mattered, like my boss, noticed I’m a good worker, came in on time, and prepared for whatever job needed to be done that day.  My role has changed over the years and I feel like it’s been good.  I have a great boss and work with some interesting people.

Q: How was the job in the beginning?  How has it changed for you?
A: I’ve  learned a lot — like how to drive a snow cat, the different types of snow guns, how to make snow (how many people even thought of that), the inner workings of a ski mountain.  I work alone more now, but I like it.

Q: You must have a different perspective than the men on the team. Have you come up with any new ideas on how things can be done?
A: My first year there, they were pulling small buckets of slush by hand out of the pit in  pump house #1, using rope tied to the handles. The ropes were all wet and would freeze to the door when you were walking out to dump the slush. It sucked, but that’s how they’d done it for years. I noticed a beam directly above the pit and asked why don’t they just put a pulley there. Everyone was amazed that no one had thought of it sooner. Within the day the pulley was up and a carabineer attached to the end of the rope. It’s a lot smoother now. One person pulls the bucket up, detaches it, attaches an empty bucket, and lowers it. The person carrying the bucket doesn’t have a 7 foot rope getting them all wet. You can also use two buckets instead of  one per person. So that was my best contribution, in my opinion.

Q: What’s a typical day for you?
A: I go all over, so it depends where I am. Some of the typical things I do are operate a pump house, move snow guns and hoses, ride a snowmobile, and dig out air and water hydrants to replace them.

Q:  It seems like a very physically demanding job. Is it dangerous?
A: Yeah, it’s a little dangerous sometimes. The most common snowmaking injury is a broken leg. We’re on the trails before there’s any snow and a lot of times it’s just rock and ice and you have to where crampons. It’s almost like mountaineering. You have to carry all the gear and set it all up, so it’s pretty labor intensive.

Q: Would you recommend snow making for other women?
A: Depends, if you like being outside in the winter and have a cool boss. Plus I get a free liftpass and good overtime.

Q: What’s your favorite part about making snow?
A: Riding the shovel. We have to walk to each gun, so sometimes we sit on our shovels and slide down to where we want to go.

Q: Do you ski or do other snow sports?
A: I ride (snowboard) mostly, then occasionally get out to X-C ski, snow shoe and ice climb.

Q: Anything else you would like to say to the folks a home?
A: Have a good time riding it!


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