After nearly half a century in the snow business, we get used to unpredictable measures— warm winter temperatures, too much rain, and ridiculous raging winds.
Valley School snowmaking at dawn.
We’ve come to expect the unpredictable. Weather patterns are consistently inconsistent. 50s one week, mid-20s the next. Fluctuating humidity. Wicked wind. And rainy days just when conditions seem oh-so-good.
What we’ve learned: how to be adaptable.
On our slopes, that means modifying our snowmaking process to be more efficient and cost-effective, adjusting shifts and labor force, and monitoring the weather.
Efficient and Cost-effective Snowmaking
Skiers and riders consider two main factors for a good day on the slopes: cost and conditions. Too often, the most common feedback at resorts is the financial expense of enjoying the slopes. It’s true, lift tickets are pricey— but for good reason.
For most resorts on the east coast, the second largest expense after payroll is energy. Unfortunately, we can’t depend on Mother Nature’s flakes to open the slopes and sustain conditions. To date since opening #BlueFriday this season, natural snowfall accumulation is less than 1” and we’re already at the tail end of December. But, thanks to snowmaking, we’re currently rocking 18 trails (23 trails come Saturday) with a 24-36” base of machine groomed granular snow. Plus, the snowtubing park is making its grand debut this weekend with at least 16 open lanes!
To do this, we depend on our snowmaking automation system. We strategically use different guns across the slopes to maximize efficiency according to weather and wind patterns. We focus on using the most energy-efficient guns that generate the greatest output of snow for faster opening times. Working with marginal temperatures and unpredictable conditions, the computer system’s quick adjustments to automated guns help maximize snow output in short periods. This includes automated gun movement in response to wind direction change for continuous snow output on trail centers, instead of trail sides or in the woods. From the office, we can also adjust the quality of snow to produce more wet or dry conditions.
The technology is advancing, but the cost isn’t cheap. If we want to continue to enjoy east coast slopes, the investment (and ticket prices) need to be considered in a new light. This is more than an investment in automation, it’s an opportunity to save the sports we love, the local business we built, and to reduce our environmental footprint.
Automated HKD pole gun.
Adjusting shifts and labor force
The automation system is a big change to the traditional ways of snowmaking. Adjusting guns used to be the main focus for snowmakers, but involved a significant expense of time. To suit up, snowmobile out, and manually adjust guns now takes less than a minute with a click of a mouse. The snowmaker’s focus, then, turns to opening and closing hydrants to access pressurized air and water, repairing shelters and hoses, checking the quality of snow trail-to-trail, gun-by-gun, and adjusting manual guns.
When temperatures rise, night crew shifts back to day, day crew cuts hours back to eight, and we take advantage of a few more hours of sleep on a day off. Snowmaking efforts shift to repairs and the Mountain Ops to-do list. But just when a new ‘schedule’ seems to settle in, the temperature falls and we’re back to the round-the-clock grind.
Long-time snowmaker, Rob, never fails a photo op.
Monitoring the weather
When Mother Nature gives the green light, it’s go time. We track the weather by hour to 15-day forecast for daily planning and short-term outlook. If you plan by the weather channel, you know our plight— the weather is consistently inconsistent. We have to be prepared when temperatures drop and keep our gear dry for the next run on the hill.
Gun check on Tut’s Lane
What quality do we look for in a snowmaker? To be adaptable. Like the challenge of variable snow conditions— and moguls— all you have to do is keep riding.
See you on the slopes,