Steamboat Springs There hasn't been a lot of good news for Jeff Nelson since 7:30 a.m. Thursday, when the city's rodeo and ski area supervisor's phone rang and interrupted his Thanksgiving holiday.
A voice on the other end of the line delivered the bad news. Howelsen Hill's snowmaking system had stopped working, and unless he found a quick fix, crews would be unable to make snow during the critical days leading up the downtown ski area's opening.
"I didn't get to celebrate Thanksgiving until Saturday," Nelson said. "But that is just a part of the job, and this is a pretty terrific job, normally."
A critical piece of computer circuitry that controls the main pump had shorted and shut down the entire snowmaking system. After troubleshooting to find a possible solution, Nelson contacted a technician with Torrent Engineering, the company that manufactured the pump, who traveled from Denver on Friday and discovered that a key part of the pump system had failed. But because of the long holiday weekend, there was no way to get the part to Steamboat until Tuesday morning.
"We lost five cold days," Nelson said as crews worked the repair to the pump Tuesday morning.
Nelson got his first bit of good news a few minutes later, however, when the pump was fired up and the system worked properly. Snowmaking crews are expected to be back at work once temperatures drop to an acceptable level.
"We will be making snow as soon as this pump is up and running and it's cold enough," Nelson said. "I'm not too worried, and I don't expect any delay in the ski area opening becase of this problem."
Howelsen Hill is scheduled to open Saturday, but athletes with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club have been training, on snow, for the past couple of weeks.
"There is just enough snow over here for every user group we have," said Rick DeVos, the Winter Sports Club's executive director.
DeVos said Alpine skiers have been making runs from the first gate to the bottom of the hill, freestyle skiers have built small jumps, and snowboarders and skiers have set up rails for training. Cross-country skiers have been making trips to the top of Rabbit Ears Pass for more than a month. The K-68 ski jump is open and running, and the bigger jumps will be open soon. Nordic director Todd Wilson expects all of Steamboat's jumps to be open in time for the first Nordic event of the year Dec. 15.
"It's perfect for what we are doing right now," DeVos said. "The snow we have has given our athletes a chance to get the rust off and get ready for the season. I don't think the problem with the snowmaking is going to impact us at all."
Nelson said the failed part cost $4,000. The pump was installed three years ago when Steamboat added the plastic-covered ski jump. The pump provides water for summer jumping and has allowed the ski area to make snow more efficiently. Nelson said there are future plans to add an additional pump that could act as a backup to the system.
"The timing is terrible," Nelson said. "But we will get it up and going, and if everything goes as planned, nobody will know the difference."