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Steamboat Ski Area's budget beefs up snowmaking, grooming


Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. is investing in more firepower this fall to help ensure snowboarders and free skiers get to play in the terrain park a little earlier this season. It's part of an announced $1.5 million capital budget.

More efficient snowmaking heads on sleds and an extra snowcat devoted to the SoBe terrain park should help Steamboat improve on last year's mid-December opening of its terrain park. That would be welcome news among snow riders devoted to rail riding and launching from the Mavericks Superpipe.

Boosting snowmaking and grooming output aren't the main focus of this year's capital budget. However, they will be among the most tangible benefits for people who head up the mountain this winter.

The shopping list for this winter includes additional cardiac defibrillators to help ski patrol save lives and a high definition video system. The latter is intended to ensure that TV networks will continue, for example, to rely on Steamboat for scenic footage that often runs with NFL football telecasts.

The meat of this year's capital budget is a $200,000 investment in getting Steamboat Ski Area's five-year master plan update through the environmental process. Successfully guiding the five-year plan through the National Environmental Policy Act approval process isn't as glamorous as the replacement of the Burgess Creek Chairlift last year. However, it's a necessary precursor to taking big steps on the mountain, Vice President of Mountain Operations Doug Allen said.

"You won't see a lot of helicopters or concrete trucks this year," Allen said. But the process is critical for bigger things to come within the next five years.

Among the more dramatic projects included in the five-year plan is a high-speed replacement for the Sunshine lift. There also is something new for Steamboat in the plan -- a six-pack chairlift. It would replace a collection of aging chairlifts that currently clutter the lowest slopes at the ski area. The master plan underwent a public review in 2004.

Steamboat will acquire 42 new snowmaking guns this fall. Of the total, 15 will replace older, less-efficient snowmaking heads with new equipment.

The remaining 27 will be 15-foot tall tower guns mounted on sleds. Their portability will allow snowmaking crews to concentrate more firepower on the terrain park during the crucial time of year, Allen said.

The tower guns also are more efficient, Allen said, and that should help snowmakers if they encounter the mild October and November temperatures that limited snowmaking last fall.

Steamboat opened the terrain park just in time to host the nationally televised "Bumps and Jumps" competition last year, and the public didn't gain access until Dec. 17.

"When you can raise (a snowmaking gun) higher above the snow, the water droplets have a longer time to freeze before they hit the ground," Allen said. "That takes less energy, and we've noticed a significant efficiency with them. Really, our goal is to be more efficient. This equipment gives us a better air-to-water ratio that allows us to put more product out there at marginal temperatures."

Ski Corp. plans to execute a capital lease this winter to acquire four new grooming snowcats, each with 350-horsepower engines. The new generation of Camoplast BR-350 cats are said to be able to groom more terrain per hour than the ski area's current fleet of 14 grooming cats. Camoplast is a new brand name for the same line of Bombardier cats the ski area has relied on for years.

Allen said the acquisition of the new cats would allow him to divert a second cat, in addition to the pipe dragon, to the terrain park.

Allen's snowmaking crews also will go to extraordinary lengths this winter to deliver man-made snow to small areas that get a lot of skier and snowboarder traffic.

One such area is on Lower High Noon and Daybreak trails, where skiers resuming their day after lunch at Rendezvous Saddle cruise in the direction of the Sundown Express lift.

Although the Priest Creek area, where the two trails are located, get some of the heaviest snowfall on Mount Werner, Lower High Noon and Daybreak are in the shadow of a hill and don't get the same abundance of snow. Nor are they among the 333 acres covered by Steamboat's snowmaking system.

"Those trails receive a lot of traffic and less natural snow," Allen said. "We experimented last winter with airless guns and long hoses and showed that with even a little bit of snowmaking, we could make a huge difference."

This year, the ski area will fit a snowcat with its own water booster pump and an efficient snowmaking gun, plus a $20,000 generator that will deliver snow right to the spot where it is needed most.

"It will be helpful in other areas," of the mountain, as well, Allen said.

Ultimately, the ski area plans to extend permanent snowmaking lines up Daybreak and Lower High Noon. But those improvements, and others all over Mount Werner, will have to wait for completion of the lengthy NEPA process.


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