From Caribou Maine to Boston and south to Plymouth there’s still a lot of snow on the ground. Many of you are hoping all this snow melts over the next few weeks, but there is another group of folks who not only don’t want the snow to melt they want to make more of it. I am of course talking about the snow makers at ski resorts and this aspect of the ski industry has kept many of our New England areas operating, even when Mother Nature doesn’t provide a lot the white stuff.
Decades Old Industry
The winter of 1979-80 was one of the least snowy on record. In Lake Placid, the winter Olympics marked the first time snowmaking was used in the games. I remember all the bare spots on the local ski slopes quite well. I put a gouge in one of my skies going over a rock that year.
Fast forward over 3 decades and snow making has taken a lot of the dependence on natural snow off the table. Don’t misread me, natural snow is still critical, but artificial snow has helped immeasurably.
Winter Of 2014-2015
This year, the lack of snow in the western part of the United States has forced many areas to close or remain closed. Unlike their eastern counterparts, water availability is a big issue, so making snow isn’t as easy as it is in this part of the world.
New England Skiing
Growing up I skied every Maine ski slope, including some that are no longer operating. Recently, I got a chance to speak with part of the team at Sunday River ski resort in Newry, Maine. I find the idea of making snow fascinating and apparently so do these guys. This group of individuals takes an enormous amount of pride in their work. Their attention to detail making snow is similar to any artist, vintner or craftsman.
The basic principle in making snow is to mix compressed air with water and shoot it out of a snow gun into the cold. From there it falls to the ground as snow. Greg Warner, Director of Snow Surfaces at Sunday River told me the newer guns can make snow much more efficiently.
Snow making is expensive and the cost of moving the pressurize air through the system accounts for an enormous percentage of it. In energy costs alone, 2 million dollars can be spent in a season. The compressors are powered by electricity and older models snow guns use 250 cubic feet of compressed air per minute, but newer guns use as little as 8 cubic feet in the same time frame.
As efficiency increases, the plan is to put that saving cost into even better snowmaking. In the past, electricity demand has been so high that Sunday River has coordinated with Central Maine Power to ensure the snow making isn’t pulling down too much energy during peak demand.
Will Bastian, Snow Making Manger loves having some level of control of the weather. I asked him about the cold weather this winter and if it was good for making snow. He explained that temperatures in the teens and single numbers is great for snow making, but the natural snow that has fallen at such cold temperatures blows around a lot. “It’s made for good glade skiing, because some the light fluffy snow blows into the woods”.
The snowmakers like to create a good base of snow and then wait for the natural stuff to build up on top. While it’s been easy shoveling for us this year, ski areas would have preferred the snow to have been a bit wetter.
The arctic cold also brings other challenges. If they water isn’t moving through the pipes fast enough it will get slushy or even freeze. Then these folks have to go thaw out the pipes before they burst. It’s not just home owners who have to worry about busted pipes in extreme cold.
Will told me there are 40 miles of both air and water pipe and if one valve isn’t in the correct position it can prevent water or air from getting to the right spot on the mountain. By monitoring the pressure of the system the snow making team knows if water is pouring onto the slopes somewhere or filling the entire network of pipe properly.
Sunday River Resort is fortunate to be able to get their water from… the Sunday River. The state of Maine only allows so much water to be taken and years ago the resorts limiting factor was the amount of available compressed air. Now, with more efficient snow making technology compressed air is no longer as much of an issue.
One aspect of the man-made snow I found interesting was the idea of it curing. “If you move it around too quickly you’ll create ice, and that will be there until spring. Greg explained. “We like to wait about 24 hours in order to let the snow cure.” he said.
The team can also make different types of snow by changing the air and water mixture. Racers tend to like a harder faster surface, while recreational skiers like it softer.
I thought they would be still making snow in March, but the team explained they don’t have a need unless there was a very rapid melt this month. If that happened they would make snow to fill in the gaps and help keep at least part of the mountain open through this year’s targeted last day of skiing of May 2nd.
Jesse Zaengle a snow making supervisor, summed it up best for the whole team. “This is the best job” he said. “I love doing this.” He thinks there will still be patches of some of their work in the shadier spots into July or even August. Snow on the ground in summer? I’ll be at the beach.
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