Ski area’s tower guns elevate man-made snow |

Ski area’s tower guns elevate man-made snow

A snow gun coats the slopes of Howelsen Hill in downtown Steamboat Springs. The blue sky dominated Monday’s weather, but forecasts are calling for a 20 percent chance of snow Wednesday night into Thursday.

A snow gun coats the slopes of Howelsen Hill in downtown Steamboat Springs. The blue sky dominated Monday's weather, but forecasts are calling for a 20 percent chance of snow Wednesday night into Thursday.

John F. Russell

— Snowmaking crews at Steamboat Ski Area put in some quality time well above 9,000 feet on Buddy's Run on Sunday.

"Yes, we are set up on Buddy's Run and have been for some time," Doug Allen, vice president of mountain operations for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., said Monday. "We fired up there yesterday as favorable temperatures lingered up higher on the mountain and got in some quality gun hours. We were on line for about five hours on the upper part, above Calf Roper, and 17 hours on the lower section. All in all, a good start up there, but we have a way to go."

With a minor storm expected to arrive in the Yampa Valley sometime Wednesday, Ski Corp. spokesman Mike Lane said the ski area will have a better idea later in the week whether the combination of natural and man-made snow will enable opening Storm Peak Express.

Snowmaking operations are also under way this week at Howelsen Hill, where the ski trails are scheduled to open Saturday.

At different locations on the valley floor Monday morning, the temperature ranged from the single digits to the teens. But it wasn't as cold higher up the mountain, where the snowmaking guns were working.

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"As always, this time of year, the weather and temperatures for snowmaking is a mixed bag. When these little high pressure ridges set in, we get some wicked inversions," Allen said. "At 7:30 (Monday) morning it was 9 degrees at the base of the mountain, 24 at Thunderhead and around 18 up on Buddy's Run."

The temperature inversion keeps the snowmaking crews moving around the mountain in search of optimum conditions, he said.

"This valley we live in is like a big bowl of cold air. The coldest air, being more dense, sinks closer to the river," Allen said. "The more you gain in altitude, the warmer it gets. Any storm energy, even from a small frontal passage, can tip the bowl over and spill some of that colder air up higher on the mountain. So we chase temperatures and make snow wherever we can most efficiently."

New tactics

The sequence of snowmaking operations early this winter reflects a change in emphasis from previous years, when the ski area's crew worked hard to cover upper and lower Vagabond with man-made snow in hopes that the gondola could run on opening day.

The gondola is in operation early this year, but the emphasis has been on getting the broader Heavenly Daze trail open ahead of Vagabond.

"The Daze is definitely nice to have this early, and it is part of our strategy for providing more vertical skiing and riding across several trails as opposed to the one trail in seasons past," Lane said.

A big part of the decision to move away from the old formula of opening on Vagabond has to do with the difficulty of getting optimum snowmaking conditions on that part of the mountain, Allen said.

"The challenge is getting the middle layer just below Thunderhead. That's a primary reason for us getting away from our old opening plan with Upper Vagabond, Betwixt and Eagle's Nest," Allen said. "There was always a warm layer that made it hard to tie all this together for opening."

The shift also has to do with the ski area's investment in more efficient snowmaking equipment.

"This was the third early winter start where we have concentrated on opening the ski area with Christie Peak Express and associated trails recently equipped with what I like to call 'high intensity' snowmaking," Allen said. "As we have been replacing the snowmaking pipe near the base, we have done so using much tighter hydrant spacing, with hydrants every 75 feet as opposed to the 250-foot average we had before. We have also lined the trails with highly efficient tower snowmaking guns. The towers are key."

The elevated towers give water droplets, which exit the snow guns under pressure, more time to freeze before hitting the ground. They also reduce the volume of compressed air needed to shoot the water up into the air.

The 80 percent savings in air capacity allows the crews to make more snow at a faster pace.

"How much water we can put to the guns is a factor of temperature. The warmer it is, the less water we can put to the guns, up until we are limited by the amount of compressed air available," Allen said.  

With the tower guns using less air just to propel water droplets into the sky, the snowmaking crews have the available pressure to send a lot more water to the guns and make a lot more snow, even in marginal conditions.  

"With the last two Novembers being so warm, we really didn't see the capability of the high-intensity snowmaking for opening until this year," Allen said.

Compressed air is the most expensive ingredient in man-made snow, he said, and the new tower guns are reducing the ski area's energy consumption.

Skiers and riders who noticed that snow conditions on Heavenly Daze on Friday weren't as skiable as Vogue, for example, weren't mistaken, Allen said.

"When we made the snow for Heavenly Daze this year, we went back to the traditional 250-foot hydrant spacing with largely conventional land guns," he explained. "Some (skiers and riders) might have noticed that the snow quality was not as good. It was great to ski Heavenly Daze on Friday and the experience kept getting better and better as it got skied in a little bit and our groomers had the opportunity to continually refine the surface."

Tower-mounted guns are definitely the way of the future, Allen said.

— To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205 or e-mail

In search of snowstorms

The National Weather Service in Grand Junction was forecasting a 20 percent chance for rain and snow showers beginning early Wednesday and continuing through Thursday night over western Colorado. The next chance of precipitation could arrive Saturday, the NWS forecast.

None of the 13 Colorado ski areas that are open reported any snow in the preceding 24 hours, according to Colorado Ski Country U.S.A. Far to the south of Steamboat, at Ski Apache outside Ruidoso, N.M., 6 inches of snow fell Sunday. The fresh snow in the mountains around Ruidoso allowed the ski area to open a beginner trail called Easy Street.

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