Snowmaker Mike Bentley jumps out of his Steamboat Ski Area vehicle earlier this week to check one of the dozens of guns set up along the Vagabond trail at the Steamboat Ski Area. Snowmakers are hoping for cooler temperatures this week in order to make snow at the resort - which has delayed its opening to Nov. 30.

Photo by John F. Russell

Snowmaker Mike Bentley jumps out of his Steamboat Ski Area vehicle earlier this week to check one of the dozens of guns set up along the Vagabond trail at the Steamboat Ski Area. Snowmakers are hoping for cooler temperatures this week in order to make snow at the resort - which has delayed its opening to Nov. 30.

Ski area official describes the science behind the snow

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By the numbers

18 to 20 million - Gallons of converted water it takes to make enough snow to open Steamboat Ski Area

250 - Hours of snowmaking operations required to make that snow

10 - Hours of snowmaking operations at the ski area so far this season, due to unseasonably warm weather

15 - Optimal temperature, in Fahrenheit degrees, for snowmaking

25 - Marginal temperature for snowmaking

$500,000 - Annual electric bill from snowmaking-related operations for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.

130,000 - Cubic yards of earth moved in re-grading of Headwall trail leading to ski base

— In his office, Doug Allen keeps a photo that shows Mount Werner covered in several feet of powder after a weekend-long dumping of snow. The picture was taken the Monday after Thanksgiving in 2001 - the only other time in Allen's 21 years with Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. that Steamboat Ski Area missed its opening day.

"History says when winter arrives, it arrives in earnest," said Allen, Ski Corp.'s vice president of mountain operations. "The one year when we missed our opening, it was some of the best early-season skiing we've ever had."

Snowmaking equipment was first installed at the ski area in 1981 to give the resort a good shot at opening by Thanksgiving. Despite that insurance, 2007 will serve as proof that no amount of snowmaking technology can overcome Mother Nature. Manmade or not, snow is snow, and it melts when it's warm.

Citing warm and dry weather conditions, Ski Corp. announced Thursday that it will delay it's opening nine days, from Nov. 21 to Nov. 30. Speaking at Ski Corp. offices Friday, Allen said he knew as early as Tuesday that the Thanksgiving opening wasn't going to happen.

That day, Allen did some calculations. It takes about 18 to 20 million gallons of converted water to make enough snow for an opening. That volume requires about 250 system hours of snowmaking. As of Tuesday, there had been about 10 hours.

Even under perfect conditions, there just weren't enough hours between Tuesday and the scheduled opening to make enough snow.

Allen said 15 degrees is ideal and 25 degrees is "marginal" for snowmaking. An unseasonably warm fall has made those temperatures hard to come by.

"We've really only had one good night of snowmaking," Allen said.

Firing snow guns

Snowmaking is a complicated process that involves complex machinery and jargon. Boiled down simply, it requires only three necessary ingredients: low temperatures, water and compressed air, which atomizes water as it comes out of a snow gun and rapidly drops its temperature.

Allen said Ski Corp.'s annual electric bill for snowmaking is $500,000.

Low temperature has been the missing ingredient, Allen said. Contrary to popular perception, he added, the Yampa Valley's geography is such that at night and other times when the air is still, temperatures are actually warmer on the mountain because denser cold air settles near the valley floor. Allen called the phenomenon a "stratification of temperature layers."

"A lot of people don't understand that, because they get in their car in the morning and it says 18 degrees," Allen said. "It isn't 18 degrees up here. : We're in a unique situation because of the size of this valley."

Ski Corp. spokesman Mike Lane called Allen the company's "resident weatherman," and stressed that crews are ready to make snow as soon as the weather permits.

"Our snowmaking guys and gals are ready to go as soon as the temperatures drop," Lane said.

In the meantime, Allen exudes a calm optimism about the upcoming ski season, noting that the La Nina phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean has provided plentiful powder for Steamboat in the past.

"Some of our heaviest snow seasons on record have been in La Nina years, but they typically start late," Allen said.

While the weather has frustrated opening day ambitions, Allen said it has "absolutely" been a blessing to the record $16 million in on-mountain projects undertaken this year. Crews were still busy Friday working on Headwall - where a total re-grading project necessitated the moving of 130,000 cubic yards of earth - but Allen reiterated that the work has nothing to do with the delayed opening.

"We're not delaying the opening for lift construction or anything else," Allen said. "It's snow and warm weather."

While they now have nine extra days to work, Lane said work will still be completed before the originally scheduled opening.

Allen said even if the work were behind schedule, the opening is not contingent on projects such as the re-grading. If winter had hit early, rather than late, Allen said Ski Corp. would have just smoothed over Headwall as best they could and finished the project next year.

"With the way the weather has been, we'll have a chance to complete it," Allen said.

The muddy Headwall has been seeded, but there will be no grass under the snow base there this season. Allen said that will mean a loss of a "little bit of insulation factor," but shouldn't make a big difference.

Those who purchased a Steamboat-only ski pass this year won't be able to offset the resort's late opening by upgrading to the Rocky Mountain Ultimate Pass that includes unlimited access to Copper Mountain and Winter Park, which are both open. While those passes still cost just $50 more than a Steamboat-only pass, Lane said there is no ability for those who already own a pass to upgrade.

- To reach Brandon Gee, call 871-4210

or e-mail bgee@steamboatpilot.com

Comments

Rossiman 7 years, 1 month ago

I realize that Ski Corp cannot be responsible for the warm weather that has postponed the opening, so, as a good will gesture, how about extending the season by 1 week?? The mountian is closing early anyway.

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steamboatgirl 7 years, 1 month ago

I love that idea Rossiman. What was the reason for closing a week earlier this coming yeaer?

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bartender 7 years, 1 month ago

Snow making was one of the first jobs I had in Steamboat. It kicked butt. Hard work and extreme weather, but it was a blast. Nothing like looking at your coworkers and saying "hey it's -40 out. Lets go spray each other with water." None the less, this season hasn't been so cooperative. Last night I left my house at 10pm on my bike with my dog. I got to snow making control at around 11:15. (Yeah night biking on Nov 16th, go figure). The temp at my house was 26, and when I got to control it was 31 at 11:15pm. It's got to be frustrating for all those guys who are sitting around waiting to work. On the way up I passed spots where guns had obviously been running before, but their piles had clearly diminished from the day. Still biking, longboarding, and my dog is still loving. Don't get me wrong, so am I; but I'd rather be snowboarding. I think I would actually find it somewhat novel if I am still on my bike Dec 15.

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jeep 7 years, 1 month ago

rossiman you must be new to the boat . they gave us extra days last year, if they can they will , and its all about the weather enjoy , it will snow, drive careful

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Rossiman 7 years, 1 month ago

Hello Jeep, I do not live in the Boat, but I ski there often. I realize the last season was extended, but if they make it official now we can all make plans to be there that extra week. I know some locals who last year made plans to leave town at the end of the season, and they too missed the last week. And if Ski Corp got their act together and published an extended season now the restraunts, shops, lodging ect. could also bennifit and plan for it. It would be a win-win for everyone.

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bubba 7 years, 1 month ago

It would be a loss for the people who book trips counting on snow at the end of the season, if it gets warm and dry quickly at the end of the year, as la nina years supposedly do though.

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dave reynolds 7 years, 1 month ago

Question to rossiman and boatgirl..Stbt has an awesome snow year stays open for two extra weeks..since you want them to reemburse you for lost days(this year) would you be willing to pay for extra days..I didn't think so..said it once say it again Thanksgiving is a crap shoot..wasn't it afew years ago the Mountian opened early closed late..so I bet both of you ponied up the dough for those extra days..YEAH RIGHT..I'm sure the mountian has its reasons for what it did..BREATHE IN BREATHE OUT MOVE ON..Ski Corp owes you two nothing..hey maybe you should attend the next management meeting and share your disapprovial with them..your since of entitlement kills me..after all with out that mountian would we all really be here

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