“It was a tough year, the fourth lowest snowfall in 33 years,” sighs Doug Allen, vice president of mountain operations at Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., when describing last year’s ski season. “And the only reason we had the conditions we did is because of our grooming and snowmaking staff.”
While jaded locals might have lifted their noses at Mother Nature and the mountain’s conditions last year, all things considered, we still had it pretty good. Runs with snowmaking were well-covered, and most visitors — especially those from more drought-stricken regions — thought conditions were fine, even if they weren’t up to Steamboat’s Champagne standards.
And everyone owes it all to Steamboat’s snowmakers, a crew of 43 tough-as-nails Ski Corp. employees who were put to their biggest test in years.
Snowmaking, now a standard practice at resorts worldwide, started quite by accident. In the 1940s in a low-temperature laboratory in Canada, scientists began studying the dangerous effects of rime icing on the intake of jet engines. Led by Dr. Ray Ringer, the researchers sprayed water into the air just before the engine intake in a wind tunnel in an effort to reproduce natural conditions. Voila! Instead of rime ice, they created snow, by definition “crystallized ice particles having the physical integrity and the strength to maintain their shape.” Not thinking about its implications for ski resorts, they published their results in various scientific journals and moved on.
In the 1950s, Art Hunt, Dave Richey and Wayne Pierce went a step further and patented the snow cannon. Wanting to offer their guests every type of sport, New York’s Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel was the first to use artificial snow on its slopes.
Steamboat hopped on the bandwagon by installing snowmaking equipment in 1982 after the record worst season of 1980-81, when the mountain received just 133 inches of snow. It’s slowly but steadily upgraded ever since, a move that paid off in spades last season when the ski area fell well short of its 317-inch snowfall average at just 228 — spelling go time for its snowmaking crew, which worked even on Christmas Eve.
The snowmaking cycle
Ski seasons like last year’s raise a few questions, from whether there’s a limit of water the ski area is permitted to use to how long into the season snowmakers can work. It’s a finite period, Allen says, that begins and ends early. “We only make snow October to January because February is too warm already,” he says.
Last year, the resort used
109 million gallons of water in its snowmaking operations, which translates to 2,500 acre-feet of snow (1 foot of snow over an acre). “We’re not limited on how much water we take from the river, only the rate at which we can take it, which is 4,200 gallons per minute,” Allen says.
Of the water they use for snowmaking, 22 percent is considered sublimation or evaporation and 78 percent returns to the watershed. To lower the evaporation rate, the nozzles often are placed higher, which requires less compressed air and reduces the rate to 18 percent.
As for the duration crews can make snow, Mother Nature calls the shots. To make snow, the temperature has to be 26 degrees or below. Once started, the guns can continue to make snow up to 30 degrees. The biggest enemy is wind, which can blow it away from the needed area.
“If we’re lacking snow in February and temperatures are favorable, we’d make it,” Allen says. “But last February, we had made as much snow on our snowmaking trails as necessary, and it actually snowed, as well.”
They’ve made snow in March before with disappointing results, Allen says. Melted natural snow mixed with fine-particle man-made snow forms large, frozen granular particles, known as corn, which inhibit consistent sliding. In layman’s terms, it puts the brakes on your skis or board as soon as you hit the man-made snow. “It’s not a great surface to ski on,” Allen says.
Allen’s crew moves across the mountain as many as 200 guns, about 100 of which might be blowing at the same time. As many as 20 might work on an area in need of a patch job. The guns weigh 70 to 2,000 pounds. The mountain has more than 600 air-pipe equipped hydrants. The air pushes the water through a nozzle to create snow. As long as the temperature cooperates, they’ll make it 24/7. Of the area’s 2,965 skiable acres, the resort can make snow on 300 acres of select runs, mostly in such high-use areas as Buddy’s Run, Heavenly Daze and Vagabond.
All in the family
Snowmaking isn’t just a winter job. Snowmaking manager Steve West and his assistant Corey Peterson stay busy all summer readying equipment; working on air compressors, hoses and pumps; and traipsing the mountain to check hydrants and pipes.
The more-visible work starts Oct. 20, when a crew of 43 employees arrive — now about 60 percent returnees and the rest newcomers who have to complete a two-day training program. They represent all genders, ages and backgrounds, and when hired, no one knows for sure how much work they’ll have. It can last until February or be over by January.
Regardless, it’s a rough few months.
“Something about snowmaking attracts unique individuals,” says Peterson, 30, who’s been at it nine years and finds sitters to take care of his almost 2-year-old son, Conner, when he’s needed on the night shifts. “It’s very different from most usual jobs.”
Indeed, it’s dangerous and involves rough conditions and manual labor. When the wind shifts, Peterson says, guns can get buried in 10 minutes, requiring an all-hands-on-deck shoveling party to free them. He likens it to crabbers working offshore in Alaska, invoking the same sense of camaraderie.
“The only way we get through it is as a team,” he says. “The nature of the job promotes camaraderie. We’re a pretty tight-knit group.”
Although the Steamboat snowmaking team has an excellent safety record, the dangers are omnipresent. They operate snowmobiles on icy, consistently changing terrain and hike on slippery slopes around 480-volt electrical equipment while monitoring high-pressure hydrants and hoses that can blow at any moment. “Typically with snowmaking, there are a lot of injuries,” he says. “You never know what it’s going to be like.”
It’s as uncomfortable as it is dangerous. Snowmakers often stand under water in freezing temperatures, wearing ear plugs and muffs to protect them from the guns’ 110-decibel booms. Because of this, not fatiguing — and having a sense of humor — is critical. Working shifts that run from noon to midnight, midnight to noon or 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., employees work three hours at a time and then retire to a nearby hut to recuperate. Ten people work each night, always two together, and they’ll work 36 hours one week and 48 the next. When finished with a shift, they might recharge and tell tales at The Tugboat Grill & Pub, one popular snowmaker hangout or, if it’s 6 a.m., warm up in one of the town’s breakfast joints.
But it’s during and after those three-hour stints that they truly bond, often thawing frosted fingers, ears and noses in the building gondola riders take for granted at the bottom of Heavenly Daze. Inside is a locker room, kitchen, bathroom and lounge area where crews bring their own food or cook family-style meals. And it’s here where they rest up, tell tales from the night and get ready to go out and do it all again so Steamboat’s skiers and riders can get a leg up on Mother Nature.
“We’re all pretty much one big family,” Peterson says. “That’s just the way it has to be with this kind of job.” ■