Steamboat Springs Snowmaking foreman Rich Eichman stood under a white plume of snow created from a snowmaking gun on the Head Wall ski run, two days before the Steamboat Ski Resort opened for business. His arm was raised in front of him, as if he was reading his wristwatch in a blizzard.
"This is how you tell if you're making good snow," he yelled over the deafening whine of the snowmaker.
Eichman, who was wearing earplugs, focused on how hundreds of tiny ice pellets falling from the plume bounced off the sleeve of his coat. If the pellets bounce, it's good snow. It they stick, it's too wet.
"This is good snow," he said proudly.
Eichman, a 10-year veteran of snowmaking, then knelt down on a drift that formed underneath the plume and picked up a handful of the newly-made product.
"See how you can kind of pack it," he said forming a snowball. "But it doesn't really stick (together). That means it's pretty good snow." Eichman sifted the snow through his gloved fingers to show how easily the ball crumbles, another sign of quality snow.
The snow is not ready to be groomed, though. It takes time for it to "cure," which is the process of loose water dripping down, leaving dry snow, he said.
One of the biggest pet peeves of a snowmaker is when the snow is not given enough time to cure before grooming and skiing. The snow can turn to ice and the snowmaker accused of making bad snow, which is something no one wants to shoulder.
That's because the 43 employees that make snow in Steamboat have a certain amount of pride in their work and the guys in charge see the quality of the snow a reflection of themselves.
There is plenty of snow on the ground for skiing, even without snowmaking efforts. However, most of the work being done right now in many spots is to ensure a good base exists to maintain snow through the spring. That's when all the work at the beginning of the season really pays off for Ski Corp. That's also why the company has an extensive snowmaking system that is much more than just blowing out air and water.
On Wednesday, just before sundown, 41 snowmaking guns were shooting on the mountain, some with the ability to blow 200 gallons of water a minute when conditions are right somewhere between 10 and 15 degrees, depending on who you talk to.
About 36 miles of pipe with 453 water hydrants are in the ground at the resort, supporting the snowmaking operation. Most of last week the system was at peak capacity, according to officials, which meant as much as 3,300 gallons of water was being pumped on the mountain each minute.
Snow is made from combining air and water at the snowmaking gun site the right mixture depends on temperature and humidity. Therefore, along with water lines, a pressurized air line also runs to each hydrant.
The water running through the pipes is pumped up from at least one of three pumping stations. It originates at the "well pit" on the Yampa River, across from Casey's Pond, where three pumps each have the ability to pull 1,110 gallons out of the river a minute. That water moves to the primary pump house at Casey's Pond, where six pumps push the water up to the control building, halfway between the bottom of the gondola and Thunderhead Lodge. From there the water is pumped to upper mountain hydrants and to a pump house at Bar UE lift. Then, the water is pushed all the way to the top of the Storm Mountain a gain of more than 3,200 feet from top to bottom.
While the 41 guns were firing and the pumps were pumping on Wednesday, $330 worth of electricity was being used each hour, snowmaking plant manager Steve West said.
West is at the helm of the water transportations system. On Wednesday, after Eichman returned from checking the gun on Headwall, West was perched in his office at the control building, similar to an air traffic control tower. The shades were drawn and four computer screens, two of which were in front of West, lighted the room.
"This really is pretty good snow-making conditions," West said, looking at one of the screens.
From eight weather stations scattered around the mountain, West monitors the temperature, humidity and other weather factors to help determine what is the perfect air-water mixture to make snow. If changes need to be made at the gun, he'll radio a crew. The crew radios back to him, reporting on what guns are running.
For much of the 11 years West has worked here, he has been writing computer software to run the operation, continually upgrading the system. His program monitors and adjusts all the water pumps and air compressors automatically, collects data on all the guns firing and runs a series of the tests and calculations to aid in the snow making process.
"This last couple days is what snowmaking has been all about," West said.
The weather has been perfect and the system at full capacity. Problems do happen, he said, such as leaks in water and air lines. But that's part of the business and why the whole operation depends on the crews in one mountain.
Three crews of about nine people make snow 24 hours a day in Steamboat.
"We are like firefighters for two months on a fire that never goes out," snowmaking manager Lance Miles said.
The snowmaking crews, which manually operate the snow guns, can be in elbow-deep snow for 10 hours or more if necessary, "running guns and dragging hose," Miles said.
If the wind blows in the wrong direction on an active gun, the whole thing can get buried and the crew will have to dig it out. Plus, with compressed air and water shooting out of the guns at unnatural speeds, the popular saying around the snowmakers is that everything you touch can kill you.
Scott McMullen is on the swing shift, and will work the guns with his crew from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.
"I think it's fun," he said. "But it's not the type of job for everybody."
Eichman said the biggest battle is dealing with the temperatures and wind. When equipment starts freezing up, there can be some serious problems. However, there are perks to the job.
"It can be the greatest job in the world," Eichman said. "There is nothing like being on top of the mountain during a full moon."