Gunning up for snow

Howelsen doubles its snow guns; ski area starts making snow

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Doug Allen called his snowmakers at the Steamboat Ski Area on Friday afternoon and told them it was time to report to work and get down to business on Buddy's Run.

"We've been putting guns into place for two weeks, but this is the time, about Oct. 24, that the weather usually gets serious, so we're going to go out there and get serious," said Allen, the vice president of mountain operations at the ski area.

Allen watched the temperature on Buddy's, a trail that begins above 10,000 feet elevation, drop from 24 degrees at mid-morning Friday to 18 degrees by 2:15 p.m. At the same time, natural snowfall from a storm that pushed in from Utah's Uintah Mountains was thickening.

Even as Allen's crews were preparing to produce their first manmade flakes of the new ski season, Jeff Nelson's crew at Howelsen Hill in downtown Steamboat had eight snow guns in position. That's double the number of snow guns the city's ski area had last year.

However, the downtown temperature was in the high 30s at mid-afternoon, and Nelson, who is the city's ski complex and rodeo supervisor, said he wasn't certain his crews would get to begin blowing snow overnight.

"If it gets down to 23 degrees by midnight, we might start," Nelson said.

If the weather cooperates, the next 10 weeks at Howelsen could become a snowmaking season like no other in the ski area's history, Nelson said. A return to dry, but colder overnight weather would be ideal for snowmaking. Nelson said optimum temperatures are between 10 and 15 degrees.

Late last autumn, the city finished installing water lines that doubled the water capacity of the snowmaking system to 800 gallons a minute. The work delayed the start of snowmaking by a month until Nov. 22, but once the snowmakers began, they had ideal conditions with overnight temperatures in the teens. That meant they finished their annual chores in five weeks, which amounts to record time.

During the off-season, the city of Steamboat Springs, Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. and Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club combined to acquire four new guns from Snowmaking Inc. Now, Howelsen has eight guns that each can handle 150 gallons a minute under ideal conditions.

What it all means, Nelson said, is that for the first time, his crews can make snow at all of Howelsen's venues for alpine, Nordic, freestyle skiing and snowboarding within a 24-hour period.

The increased capacity comes at a good time. Howelsen Hill has earned a reputation as the place where ski jumpers get their first chance to train on snow in North America. And in early December, international competitors will begin arriving in preparation for the Nordic Combined World Cup scheduled for Dec. 10 to 12. That event will require snowmaking coverage on Howelsen's cross-country trails as well as on the ski jumps.

In anticipation of the task, Nelson has four of his pieces of snowmaking equipment lined up in the rodeo arena, which does double duty as the start and finish area for cross-country races.

"We've got a lot of things going for us this winter," Nelson said.

The snowmaking will be critical in January when Howelsen co-hosts an adaptive skiing World Cup with the Steamboat Ski Area. And even in March, when the snow may have begun to melt, the manmade snow blown before the first of the year will allow Steamboat to host the National Ski Jumping championships.

This year's snowmaking situation on Mount Werner is not unlike that of October 2003. Allen's snowmaking crews saw their first action Oct. 24 last year. That was 10 days later than the start of snowmaking in October 2002.

Allen said that if the temperature continued to drop overnight Friday, his crews would move lower down the mountain to blow snow on trails that are key for establishing a route off the mountain on opening day.

Those trails, including the lower half of upper Vagabond, Betwixt-Between, Right-o-Way and Giggle Gulch, are chosen to ensure intermediate skiers will be able to ride the gondola and ski to the base of the mountain from Thunderhead on opening day.

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