Snowmaking, much like Santa Claus, is a mystery unto itself. And like old St. Nick, it gifts the mountains with goods aplenty in the middle of the night. Bleary-eyed adventurers awaken to a fresh coating, but many do not fully appreciate the science behind efficient and effective snowmaking that graces the slopes during a hard, cold, often windy night of work while most are warm and fast asleep.
Typically used to kick off a new season and to supplement natural snowfall, snowmaking began in the 1950s with the invention of the snow gun and its installation for the first time at Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel in New York. The technology quickly spread and became more popular in the 1970s and continues to be heavily relied upon today.
Following its popularity throughout the east in the early 1980s was Bill LeClair, who is now the snowmaking manager at Arapahoe Basin. He began making snow in New Hampshire at Mount Sunapee, and has steadily tracked the technological progressions from New Hampshire to Denver for school to Keystone to being the manager of the illustrious snowmaking squadron at Arapahoe Basin. As soon as he saw the fisherman’s snowmaker outfit and got catted to the summit of Mount Sunapee and told by the foreman to “just make some snow,” Bill says, “it got into my blood.”
Snowmaking uses differing techniques based on factors such as elevation, cost incentives, and regional preferences. Some resorts use air compressors, some use water systems, though these two choices are highly dependent upon elevation. Air compressors are rated at sea level, and when they are brought to higher elevations (for example, Arapahoe Basin makes snow around 12,600 feet) they lose a significant amount of power and efficiency. For this reason, A Basin uses fan guns that include their own self-contained compressors. Prime nights for snowmaking are cold, 10-degree wet bulb nights without wind and low humidity.
“Wet bulb is just a term used in snowmaking,” Bill explains. “It’s a way of quantifying what kind of production temperature you need through a combination of air temperature and humidity.” Bill says that a truly dedicated snowmaker is constantly eyeing the upcoming temperatures and many are part-time meteorologists. “People say snowmaking isn’t rocket science, but with the technology that’s out there, it’s definitely becoming more of a science.”
Many small resorts, colloquially the ‘ma and pa ski areas,’ heavily rely on artificially produced snow. Resorts across the country rely on snowmaking for more than just its fluffy white end product, too. “It’s just essential,” explains Bill. “Bottom line is that ski areas are a business, and it’s always great when they can open on man-made snow; it creates revenue, creates jobs for employees of the county and of the state, and it’s great for local businesses too.” With snowmaking, resorts can now fire up their snow guns as early as September and open with an 18-inch base.
The technology itself has vastly improved since that season back in the 1950s. Control of resort-wide snowmaking used to be entirely manual, with pump stations, boosters, and everything was executed by pressing a button. Nowadays, the system is largely automated with mouse clicks controlling machines miles away. “Some systems even have weather stations all over the mountain where the guns can start up all on their own depending on the ambient weather condition,” Bill says. It’s a different world for snowmakers, but one thing that Bill says hasn’t changed is the group mentality that accompanies people willing to work all night in the dark and the cold to make snow.
“Camaraderie and the fact that it’s very much a team thing, not just an individual’s job, is one of my favorite parts of this job.” Bill continues that the public’s reaction to his Santa-like overnight blessing of new snow is another reason he loves and continues in the snowmaking industry. He lives for seeing how many people love skiing and their excitement with the product he and his crew provide: “It’s almost like you’re playing Mother Nature, it’s great,” he grins.
Unlike Mother Nature, however, artificial snowmaking is a very precise science. Most ski areas have to precisely report their water usage by how many acre-feet are pushed in a 24-hour period. Each snow gun at A Basin can individually track its water usage, find historical data, and display its flow rates. A good snowmaker, however, can abandon some of the precision, look at a trail and the snow cover, and fairly accurately determine “yep, she’s done,” Bill explains, “it’s sort of like an art.”
“It’s almost like you’re playing Mother Nature, it’s great.”
This art often receives more than its fair share of criticism, however, and much of it has to do with water usage. Most resorts that utilize snowmaking pull from a river or a reservoir, and this causes debate among environmentalists. “People think all we do is drain rivers and kill fish, but what many people don’t understand is that we’re taking water from a water source, we’re storing it, and then when summer comes it melts right back into that source that we got it from, and much more gradually than in nature,” explains Bill. He continues that many resorts partake in extensive mitigation efforts to offset any potential impacts. For instance, some ski areas will stock rivers with fish as a way to give back to summer recreation. “If I was doing something that would affect my ecosystem and kill my fish, I wouldn’t be in this industry.”
One thing that Bill does admit could use remediation with snowmaking is the amount of electricity it uses. However, many resorts are implementing lower-use energy guns that also use less air, and many are switching to the fan guns that A Basin uses. “Ski areas are overall very green,” Bill continues, saying that he wishes people didn’t have such a negative view of snowmaking as an environmental detriment.
He urges resort-goers to engage with their local snowmaking celebrities, say a big thank you, and to enjoy the end product above all else.