When nature lets the ski resort down there are always the snowmakers
by Dawne Belloise
It started out as a dismal amount of white stuff well into December until Ullr, the Norse god of snow, decided to bestow a gift of almost a foot of powder on Christmas Day, for which we genuflect.
However, the real patron saints of the slopes are mere mortals orchestrating the laborious miracle of actually making snow so that we might schuss down on perfect corduroy. This year, with the almost tropical weather infringing on our mountain winter, the snowmakers had their work cut out for them, working 24/7 to ensure a base and keep it through the warmer days. Luckily, their expertise and hard work paid off for all of us who anxiously awaited Ullr’s blessing.
Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s (CBMR) graveyard shift foreman, Eric Stoorza, is now in his ninth year of snowmaking at the resort. He explains, “It’s 24-hour snow making, and as long as it’s cold we can be out there around the clock,” which it has been, finally. “We didn’t have any natural snow and it’s been warm through late December and that’s been our challenge. It’s really only been cold the last week so we’ve had some difficulties. We basically have to use compressed air to make snow and if it’s warm out, we require more compressed air than other times. That’s what limits us. We were not able to compress air, and the guns require more compressed air. When it’s colder it’s a lot easier.”
CBMR snowmaking manager Tucker Roberts said ideal snowmaking conditions are when the temperature is at 5° Fahrenheit with the relative humidity at zero. So the crew constantly checks the weather to ensure their work isn’t in vain and the snow doesn’t melt the following day.
CBMR has no restrictions as to when they can start making snow, other than temperatures and conditions, so the experienced crew calls the shots as to when they can maximize the output.
Snowmaking typically begins in November. Roberts noted that the 140-plus snow guns service about 450 locations around the resort to lay down the foundation for when Ullr decides to send the big white our way.
“Manmade snow is denser than natural snow and the snow we make provides a good base layer that holds up well throughout the season,” Roberts explained. “The trails we make snow on are usually the ones that we are still skiing on at the end of the season when the natural trails are closed due to lack of snow.”
There are two types of snow-making guns. Tower guns are the primary ones that use compressed air. Fan guns spray only water through a series of nozzles around a huge fan. The made-man snowflakes aren’t your typical pretty fractal geometrics but instead are like little icy orbs, engineered to better handle being pushed around by grooming cats and to stand up better to the overall elements.
Depending on the air temps and humidity, generally there are about 28 guns running simultaneously but there have been times when that number reaches more than 50. But in ideal situations, CBMR usually runs about half that many.
Last week the guns converted about 64 million gallons of water from the East River into snow. Stoorza reckoned they almost always spray around 70 million to 80 million gallons a year, whether it’s a good snow season or not. Certain high-volume areas still have to be covered, such as the top and bottom of the chair lifts.
The job has its dangerous aspects, as moving hoses and working with such high pressure requires concentration and training. “It has the potential to be dangerous,” Stoorza says, “so it’s important to have return employees because they’re trained. We work as a team and we really have to trust each other and rely on each other for safety. It seems like every year we have maybe two to four new employees who have to be trained. It’s almost like an apprenticeship.”
The training consists of on-the-job, hands-on education that occurs every night and focuses on safety. “There’s always a topic like snowmobile riding on icy terrain or we’ll talk about how to safely handle the guns, and how to work around high-pressure hoses,” Stoorza says, noting that in order to get that plume of frigid, misty snow, those guns fire off water pressure at an intense 700 PSI (pounds per square inch) and the air pressure is about 90 PSI.
Oftentimes a pipe will freeze so a blowtorch must be wielded to thaw it out. Everything involves digging-out, moving and reattaching hoses and constant maintenance so operations can continue.
The relentless day-and-night snowmaking of the 27-person crew (with a cumulative 215 years of experience) has made for excellent progress in opening new terrain on the mountain and they continue to get more lifts and runs open for the holiday crowds and appreciative locals. There are two shifts—the graveyard is from midnight to noon, with the swing from noon to midnight, each 12 grueling hours but Stoorza humbly shrugs, “It’s not so bad, it’s not like we’re outside the whole time. We have the control building just below the top of the Red Lady lift and it’s a warm shelter, plus we’ve got a stereo and even exercise equipment. It’s a place we can cook some food, sit down for a minute, take a break and dry our stuff out,” since the crew gets soaked. “We get covered completely because we have to go out under the plume of the gun to check the snow quality coming out of the guns. A lot of the time we get doused.
“We have to have a certain amount of snow in certain areas but the unofficial end date of snowmaking is December 31,” Stoorza says. It’s definitely a cause for celebration when their work is finally done. There’s a fellowship and tight camaraderie since the crew shares some of the toughest work on the mountain for long hours.
“After the snow is made, some of us drive snowcats for CBMR,” he says. “There’s already a bunch of folks out grooming.” Crested Buttians, who know that without the magic of the snowmakers the slopes would not be as excellent as they are today, are exceptionally appreciative of the efforts. “In a dry year like this, we get a lot of love from the community. People have been very good to us and there have been a lot of thanks… and cookies and baking. They’d ski by and drop off goodies for us.”
So as the snow continues to fall (or not) onto the base these magicians have created for us, make sure you give thanks to not only Ullr but also to the Jedi of Snow, CBMR’s master snowmakers.