An in-depth look at a very cold job
It’s a late December morning during snowmaking season. Snowmaking tower guns line Upper International and blow snow across the top of the mountain at Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR). Inside a small wooden building not far from the top of Red Lady Lift, Tucker Roberts has his eyes on a computer screen that, to the untrained eye, looks like a maze of shape and color.
He holds a radio in one hand and, without taking his eyes off the screen, tells snowmakers out in the field what to shut down and what to start up next. The screen tells Roberts and Mark Voegeli, CBMR’s snowmaking and grooming manager, everything they need to know about the status of snowmaking on the mountain: which guns are running, what kind of pressure they’re blasting at and how much energy is being consumed. It also tells them at what point the entire operation will hit peak energy consumption and rates—something they take many measures to avoid.
Roberts is nearing the end of a 12-hour shift that began at midnight, and Voegeli has been working every day since the snowmaking season began in early November. Making snow is a round-the-clock operation that does more than provide early-season snow. It provides a solid base for a full season of skiing, and in dry winters like last year, it helps keep ski areas afloat.
It’s a significant part of the modern-day ski resort, and for two months of the year a snowmaker’s life is “Make snow, sleep, repeat.”
A high risk job
When the weather is right, snowmaking crews are out on the mountain every day, 24 hours a day. Voegeli schedules two shifts: one crew of seven from noon to midnight and a second crew of seven from midnight to noon. During the early season, he might cut that back to one overnight shift, but once the season gets rolling, there’s very little stopping.
Each shift has a foreman and a shift controller who can take turns monitoring the system and calling the shots, but everyone—no matter the role—spends time outside manning the guns and the shovels.
“There’s not a single person excluded from running the shovel for four or five hours—everyone gets those joys,” Voegeli says.
Under ideal conditions, tower guns blow a mixture of water and compressed air that crystallizes and falls to the ground as snow. But the slightest bit of wind changes the game, and being a snowmaker means being a snow shoveler.
“A lot of times the way it works for us is it just so happens the wind will blow in the wrong direction of where we want the snow to be made,” Voegeli says. Take mid-December, for example. A storm system blew in while the team was blowing snow on the lower part of the mountain. The wind blew snow back toward the towers, dumping it right on top of the hydrants.
“We pushed through it and made snow during that whole time and everything turned out just fine, but the West Wall Lift had 15 guns on it and the snowmakers were digging constantly. If you left the guns alone for an hour, you were digging for two hours, it was that bad,” Voegeli says.
Sometimes, if they let the digging go unchecked, the snow can get so bad they have to use a snowcat to dig it out. “We don’t want to get in that situation because we want clear, direct access to all hydrant sites whenever we need it,” Voegeli said.
That means whenever the guns are running, snowmakers are making sure hydrants are clear, equipment is in good working condition, and the quality of the snow is up to par. When one area is complete, they move the equipment to a new section of the mountain and start all over again. Over the course of the season, each of the resort’s 135 snowmaking guns will be moved two to three times.
“Start to finish, it’s a high risk job. The crews are dealing with high-pressure water, they’re dealing with high-pressure air, they’re dealing with ice on guns up high. Things like that we go look for and knock off the guns so it doesn’t hurt us, but it’s around every corner. There’s not really a single element other than sitting in the building monitoring the system that doesn’t have some risk,” Voegeli said.
More than early season snow
It might sound counterintuitive to make snow during a snowstorm—if snow is falling and wind is blowing, why make snow? But snowmaking does more than provide early-season snow. Manmade snow provides a base that lasts longer and maintains quality longer than natural snow.
“The crystal is a little more dense due to its being more of a frozen water droplet that does not transform into a flake,” Voegeli explained.
Perhaps the best example of the manmade snow’s quality is on International, where a thermal patch near the top of the run can cause snow to melt out before the ski season is over. Before CBMR upgraded its snowmaking equipment in 2004, snowmakers didn’t have the ability to make snow on top of the thermal patch.
Late in the season, they had to patch and repair the snow almost nightly. Now that they can make snow the whole way up the run, they have to do maintenance to the run only a few times a season.
Voegeli also has a picture in his office from the winter of 1980/1981 that shows the first snowmaking gun at the resort. It’s a ground gun sitting on Warming House Hill. It was a particularly dry year, and you can see grass on the run. That kind of melt out is a lot easier to avoid with new snowmaking equipment and early snow-making, and it also creates better runs.
“It helps get rid of some of the natural terrain features, making a run what it’s not—making it flat, making it pitch the right way, so it’s not a double, triple, quadruple fall line and making it one fall line straight down,” Voegeli says.
That gives the resort a better product and a new kind of resilience in the face of dry winters. “Last year, the whole state of Colorado was a great example of how snowmaking helped keep the whole state afloat ski-area-wise,” Voegeli said.
A complex operation
CBMR can start making snow at midnight on Halloween, but Voegeli typically waits until early November when warm temperature fluctuations have settled down. Once the snowmakers start, they pump water out of the East River and up to the resort. Chris Corliss, CBMR’s mountain operations manager, explained that a formula developed in partnership with the Forest Service determines how much water the resort can pull from the river.
During dry years, there’s common concern among the public that the resort won’t be able to make snow or will deplete the flow of the river. But the formula dictates a minimum flow in the river.
“We have we never not been able to pump any water,” Corliss said.
The Snowflake Control Center, where Voegeli and Roberts monitor the system by computer, also functions as a booster station. They can boost water at 80 to 200 psi up to whatever pressure they need up to 720 psi to send it up the mountain through a network of hydrants.
In any given year, they typically pump about 80 million gallons of water onto the mountain. By mid-December of this year, they had pumped about 60.5 million gallons of water and, according to Voegeli, that’s right on track.
Many of the upgrades that allow the crew to make snow on International also make snowmaking more efficient. The most energy-intensive and expensive part of the process is blowing compressed air. New tower guns consume only 50 cubic feet per minute, whereas ground guns use 699 cfm.
“In a ground gun, air and water are mixed and 99 percent of the time the air is on full-blast,” Voegeli explained. Snowmakers then vary the amount of water to achieve the quality of snow they want. By contrast, with tower guns they turn on air and water on all the way, and when the temperature is 14 degrees or colder they can reduce the amount of air.
That kind of technology helped CBMR earn the Excellence in Energy Efficiency award from Governor John Hickenlooper and the Governor’s Energy office in 2011—the governor had challenged companies to meet certain energy efficiency standards within five years. CBMR reached them within one.
A lot like family
It’s easy to see that Voegeli takes pride in that kind of recognition and in the hard work of his crew. It’s intense work, but it has a short window and goes a long way toward giving the resort a better product.
“I always tell them that unlike other jobs, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel as soon as you start,” Voegeli says. “Every night, it’s a little bit brighter.”
Voegeli hasn’t had to advertise for crew members in years—the crew recruits friends, or snowmakers from other resorts call Voegeli and ask to spend a year at CBMR. They want to see the high-tech and efficient system first-hand and often, they never leave. Voegeli considers himself fortunate to work with a crew that wants to be there.
It feels a lot like family, he says, making the end of the season bittersweet. There’s always the sweet relief that comes from laying down another solid base, but 10 months seems like a long time to wait before he gets to hang out with the crew.