Snowmakers play key role in early opening of ski area
November 29, 2015
Steamboat Springs — It's not the scene one would expect when learning about the snowmaking process at the Steamboat Ski Area.
There is Alex Spencer, sitting in front of three large computer screens — a fourth high up to his left — full of numbers and labels only the crew can understand. Behind Spencer is snowmaking manager Corey Peterson, talking into his radio to the dedicated workers not lucky enough to be inside the heated control building.
"He is basically looking at our water pressures," Peterson said about Spencer, "and keeping everything running smoothly in the water system, adding and subtracting more air compressors as we need more air, and then also logging all the guns we run."
When the temperature is ideal, skiers and snowboarders might see the snow guns going off, covering their favorite run in a fresh layer of powder. However, what those same skiers and snowboarders don't see is the hard work that goes on through the night, with people such as Spencer controlling the operation in front of a digital setup any video game aficionado would drool about.
"I definitely think the snowmakers are the unsung heroes, among a lot of other unsung heroes, at the resort," said Loryn Kasten, public relations manager for Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. "They are not making fake snow. Sometimes people think that. They are really just assisting Mother Nature. It's even more spectacular what they are doing. They are making weather so that we can make our product."
The ski area opened Nov. 21, its first early opening since 2002. A lot of that had to do with the 22-inch mid-mountain snow base accumulated by that time, created by a couple of impressive early-season storm systems. But without the extra snow created by the snowmakers, the chances of any runs being ready before December would be slim.
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"A lot of people don't understand how big an operation it is," said Peterson, an 11-year veteran with the Steamboat Ski Area who was named one of the top six snowmakers in the country in 2014 by Ski Area Management magazine.
"It's really important to just get that base down so we can get the runs open early," he continued. "If we had to open all the runs on natural snow, it would take a long time, and we wouldn't be able to open by Thanksgiving. So it's just to ensure we can provide more acreage for the guests."
The snowmaking crew, which includes more than 40 men and women, reported to work in late October and started running the guns in early November. The air temperature needs to reach about 25 degrees on the mountain before the snowmaking process can begin.
"The snowmakers are literally building the foundation for our season," Kasten said. "They get started early and they build it, then they continue their work throughout the season, as we need them. So they really are an integral part to the success of the ski resort. We could not operate without them doing the great work that they do."
The process starts in the Yampa River, where large motors pump water through underground pipes up the mountain. This water is combined with air and "shoved" through the snowmaking guns, where the air breaks the water into smaller particles that freeze and turn into snow.
The ski area's system can pump 4,200 gallons of water per minute, and Peterson said they pump close to 100 million gallons of water each year through the system. Some of the newer guns are fully automated and, similar to all the pumps and compressors, can be managed from the control building, located approximately halfway up the mountain between the maintenance building off Burgess Creek Road and Thunderhead.
"It's definitely high tech," Peterson said. "The biggest thing with snowmaking, just like pretty much anything else, is efficiency. And the guns keep getting more and more efficient and a lot of the other stuff we put into the infrastructure like the pipe and stuff like that is making us more efficient."
The bulk of the snowmaking process is completed by the end of December. The remainder of the season, the crew works on patching thin spots, as needed. And the same base layer they helped create before the season is key to keeping some of the runs open into the spring.
"The snowmakers deserve a lot of recognition and they sometimes go unrecognized. They put in long hours at night. It's a really cold and dark job," Kasten said. "They have a passion for what they do, and that shows in the product they create. Steamboat has been so fortunate to have such incredible people in our snowmaking department for many, many years, and Corey is a product of that."