A veteran staff of snowcat drivers putting a couple of 500 horsepower Bombardier cats to work has helped Steamboat Ski Area maintain a good surface on intermediate trails such as Vogue throughout the winter.

Photo by Tom Ross

A veteran staff of snowcat drivers putting a couple of 500 horsepower Bombardier cats to work has helped Steamboat Ski Area maintain a good surface on intermediate trails such as Vogue throughout the winter.

Steamboat ski conditions hold strong in spite of weather

Snowcat drivers help maintain good trails

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Snowpack eyed for summer water

Snow depth at the west summit of Rabbit Ears Pass on Wednesday measured 45 inches, down from 50 inches March 11, according to the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. However, the drop in snow depth is not an indication that snowpack above 9,000 feet is melting. The water content of the snow held steady at about 13.8 inches.

The water stored in the snow on Rabbit Ears is only 57 percent of average for this date. The Yampa and White river basins combined stand at about 75 percent of average water content. In other Colorado river drainages to the south, in particular the Rio Grande and Arkansas basins, water content is greater than 100 percent of average.

— The high-country snowpack condensed by about 5 inches under the March sun this week, but the cruising conditions on the trails of Steamboat Ski Area have held up well.

“Given the lack of recent snowfall, you can still find good snow on the edge of the runs,” Coleman Cook said about an afternoon of skiing Tuesday. “You maybe don’t want to go up there before 1 p.m. when it softens up. After 3 p.m. you can head to north-facing slopes.

“I talked to two different people who said they skied Chute 2 after 4 p.m. and it was great.”

Powder days have been few and far between this winter, especially compared to the past two winters when Steamboat tallied more than 400 inches of snowfall. The ski area’s season total now is 208.5 inches and the mid-mountain base is 48 inches. The 30-year season average is 315 inches. The record season of 2007-08 saw 489 inches fall at mid-mountain.

Vice President of Mountain Operations Doug Allen confirmed this week that snowmaking crews pumped out more of the manmade white stuff than usual early this winter, but he attributes the quality of the skiing surface on Mount Werner to a veteran grooming staff.

Allen said his snowcat drivers, who groom the snow in the dark all winter, average more than 20 years of experience apiece.

“This is a great time to have a tenured grooming crew,” Allen said. “Those guys are unbelievable in their knowledge of the mountain. They’re artists.”

This winter, Allen’s artists have a couple of Bombardier BR 500 snowcats, each costing $240,000 and equipped with a 500-horsepower CAT diesel engine. One of the BR 500’s was purchased before the winter of 2008-09, and the second was purchased at the beginning of this winter.

The brawny cats are more efficient in recycling snow from the bottoms and edges of ski trails and putting it back on spots where it’s needed most, Allen said.

“Over the years, (the snowcat drivers) have developed a feel for the mountain and where the snow is loading up from skier traffic and where to redistribute it,” Allen said.

The new snowcats are capable of doing 20 percent more work than their smaller brethren, he said, and have allowed the ski area to reduce its fleet of front-line groomers from 11 to 10.

The new grooming machines are often used to pre-work hard spots on trails to make them ready for a fresh coat of corduroy, Allen said.

Water for snowmaking

Steamboat takes its water for snowmaking from the Yampa River, but puts most of it back in the spring, Allen said.

“We average 100 million gallons every year (for snowmaking),” Allen said. “This year, we used 110 million. The last two winters we shut down at between 70 (million) and 80 million.”

Snowmaking operations take water from the river at a time of year when agricultural demands aren’t a factor, Allen said. He added that a detailed study done in the 1980s showed that a little more than 80 percent of the manmade snow applied to the slopes returns to the river during spring runoff.

It was ironic during the winters of 2007-08 and 2008-09 that investments the ski area made in improved snowmaking and grooming was obscured by unusually heavy natural snowfall.

“I think the quality of the surface has been better this year” than in other low-snow winters, Allen said. “You know we’re proud of it.”

Snow is back in the forecast today, when the high temperature is supposed to reach only 32 degrees. Between 1 and 3 inches are expected for the city. Saturday’s high will be 34 degrees, followed by a warming trend from Sunday into the next week.

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