Just about every fall, Jeff Nelson is asked whether he's ready for winter.
For Nelson, it's not a matter of being ready, simply shifting gears.
The downtown ski area is inching toward a busy December, which will include a World Cup B Nordic Combined event, a U.S. Ski Team Olympic freestyle qualifier and several top-level Alpine ski races. It's an impressive agenda for a ski area that doesn't plan to open until Dec. 2, but Nelson is confident his staff can handle it.
Howelsen was prepared to start making snow Oct. 15, but warm weather resulted in limited success. Nelson was thrilled when the pace picked up dramatically Nov. 12 as temperatures dropped enough to sustain snowmaking operations.
Before that, crews had combined for about nine hours of snowmaking, Nelson said.
"It was barely enough to make a snowball," Nelson said.
But in the past week, the guns have been working nearly nonstop, and crews have been working around the clock to keep up with them.
Nelson said he expected skiers for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club to start jumping on the ski area's HS-100 (K-90) and to start Alpine ski training this week.
"Once it gets cold enough, it's all hands on deck," Nelson said.
The string of below zero days has kept the 10 full-time, and 15 seasonal employees who make up the city's snowmaking crews busy. Nelson said the snowmakers are split into three-man crews that work 24-hours a day.
At night, when the temperatures are low, the crew keeps the guns running. In the morning, crews must make snow where it is possible and shut down guns in places where the temperature is too high to make snow. During the days, crews clean filters and adjust, position and maintain the snowmaking guns. In the afternoon, another crew must fire up the guns as temperatures begin to fall and make sure the process keeps running for another night.
Crews also must move the huge piles of man-made snow to the area's where it is needed during the day.
Nelson said it's a continuous process that results in covering Howelsen Hill with a good layer of man-made snow.
"The man-made stuff is more durable than real snow," Nelson said. "We need to blow a good base of snow, so that it will hold up into the spring."
It's important for the ski area to have a good base for its scheduled opening Dec. 2, but, Nelson said, most of the snow is for a series of major events that will be hosted by Steamboat this winter. The biggest challenge has been blowing the huge amount of snow needed to build a set of freestyle jumps on the face of the hill for the Olympic qualifier.
Thanks to the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., Howelsen gets the use of three additional guns from Snow Machines Inc. to meet the additional demand. Howelsen also will get the use of a demonstration winch cat, on loan from Bombardier, to be used to help build the actual jumps.
"We are in very good shape," Nelson said. "We should be ready for the World Cup B in plenty of time."
The snowmakers' first priority has been to blow snow on the ski jumps and cross-country tracks that will host a World Cup B Nordic Combined event Dec. 9 to 11 at Howelsen Hill. The crews also have been scrambling to blow the snow required to build freestyle jumps on the face for the U.S. Ski Team's Olympic qualifying event from Dec. 30. The jumps, which will be made entirely of snow, represent one of the biggest snowmaking undertakings Nelson can recall.
In between those dates, the ski area also will host a series of FIS slalom races and must meet the needs of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club's training schedule.
"This operation is 24-7," Nelson said. "I get nervous that we will not make it just about every year, but somehow -- some way -- we always seem to get it done."
Nelson said the crews would move the guns blowing snow at the rodeo grounds to the Hobo park area to improve conditions on the World Cup B cross-country course. The snowmaking crews will be hoping for continued low nighttime temperatures and some natural snow to fill in remote areas of the cross-country course where snowmaking is not available.