Steamboat Ski Area won't begin making snow for several weeks

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Reader poll

When will it snow in Steamboat Springs for the first time?

  • Second week of October (Oct. 7 to 13). 18%
  • Third week of October (Oct. 14 to 20). 21%
  • Fourth week of October (Oct. 21 to 27). 15%
  • Fifth week of October (Oct. 28 to Nov. 3). 24%
  • Later than Nov. 3 23%

148 total votes.

By the numbers

Steamboat Ski Area season snowfall totals

Driest winters

  1. 1980-81: 133 inches
  2. 1986-87: 167 inches
  3. 1991-92: 173 inches
  4. 2011-12: 228 inches
  5. 1982-83: 236 inches

Deepest winters

  1. 2007-08: 489 inches
  2. 1996-97: 448 inches
  3. 1983-84: 448 inches
  4. 1995-96: 441 inches
  5. 2010-11: 433 inches

Records date back to 1979-80.

Source: Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.

— With the Opening Day of Steamboat Ski Area’s 50th anniversary season just 45 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes and nine seconds away (or even closer if you slept in Saturday morning), the ski area is resisting the temptation to jump into the snow derby with its cousins on Interstate 70.

Colorado ski areas at higher elevations, notably Loveland (10,807-foot base elevation) and Copper Mountain (9,712-foot base elevation), were blowing snow to mix with a little natural snowfall this weekend.

While snowmaking crews were busy at Steamboat Ski Area this week, they weren’t planning to make snow Saturday night even though overnight temperatures were expected to dip into the teens — cold enough to make a small pile of snow.

Steamboat Vice President of Mountain Operations Doug Allen explained that Steamboat’s relatively low elevation (6,900 feet) and the west-facing orientation of Mount Werner make early October snowmaking less productive.

“We’ve had some fun making snow in October. We even made some in September one year, but the fruits of our efforts are generally all melted and gone by the first of November,” Allen wrote in an email.

He said orientation meetings for snowmakers are scheduled for Oct. 20. Crews will be ready to go right after that, he said, but won’t get serious about covering the slopes in white until about Nov. 1. Snowmaking crews, however, already have been laying out snowmaking guns and towers in preparation.

The snowmaking crews blowing water droplets into pressurized air over the slopes of Copper this weekend are operating under a different set of circumstances, Allen said.

“Steamboat is a different world than Copper Mountain,” Allen wrote. “I know because I lived and worked there for 15 years. Where they are making snow is at an elevation in excess of Four Points Hut in areas that don’t face into the afternoon sun as does our mountain. Because of our western aspect, even snow we made up there would have a tough time making it until November.”

Snowmaking saved Steamboat’s December holidays in 2011 when the 67.3 inches of natural snow that usually buffers the ski area during that month pulled a no-show (24.5 inches fell). Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. President Chris Diamond told a gathering of businesspeople in mid-March that he waved goodbye to his snowmaking budget for the year in December 2011. What was critical was using the snowmaking system of 150 guns to assure holiday visitors a credible skiing experience.

“Fortunately, we realized early on that there was no such thing as a snowmaking budget,” Diamond said in March. “It was whatever it took; we’d have to figure out how to basically connect the dots to have a reasonable holiday.”

Going into the season, Steamboat had enough snowmaking capacity to cover 368 acres of trails spanning the top of Storm Peak to the base of the ski area through a network of buried waterlines and 600 available hydrants.

Of course, Steamboat hasn’t always had a snowmaking system to ensure December and early January skiing in dry winters. The beginning of the snowmaking era here goes back three decades.

It was the scarce snow winter of 1980-81, when just 133 inches fell at midmountain, that galvanized the ski area operators into action.

Ski Corp. followed that snow drought by investing $4.5 million in a snowmaking system that was capable of covering 160 acres served by nine chairlifts. And it was that investment that first allowed the ski area to offer skiing consistently by Thanksgiving weekend.

In recent years, Steamboat has invested in a fleet of HKD tower-mounted snow guns that use 30 percent less energy than conventional guns while producing the same amount of snow.

Allen wrote that when daily high temperatures are cold enough to justify snowmaking, likely next month, and operations shift into high gear, the first priority would be to get the trails off Christie Peak Express ready for Scholarship Day on Nov. 21.

“Second priority will be Heavenly Daze, so we can turn the gondola, hopefully during the Thanksgiving weekend,” Allen wrote. “We were able to do that last year, which was a great start to what ended up a disappointing season.”

After Heavenly Daze is secured, the snowmaking crews will move on to Rudy’s Run, Lightning, Ego (for the Burgess Creek chairlift) and Buddy’s Run to allow skiing from the top of the ski area via Storm Peak Express.

“By sometime in early December, we’ll start blasting the south-facing trails down to Sundown Express,” Allen wrote.

The winter of 2011-12 produced a season snowfall total of 228 inches, better than the 133 inches that fell in 1980-81 but far less than the 433 inches local powder hounds gobbled up in 2010-11.

Related story

March 17, 2012: Snowmaking saved 2011 holidays

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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