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Okemo has snow guns cranking

By Phil Johnson
Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The days of bad sliding have come to an end. It is winter again, on the thermometer certainly if not on the calendar just yet. Skis are ready, boards are ready and most ski areas throughout our area have either opened for the season or will do so soon.

The reason, of course, is what veteran snowmaking manager Ray Kennedy at Okemo in Vermont calls “near-perfect” conditions for firing up the snow guns over the past month.

“I can’t remember a better November for snowmaking,” said Kennedy, who has the experience to make that claim stick. He has been at Okemo for 21 years.

Snowmaking has been the lifeblood of Eastern skiing for years. While it has been around since the 1950s — Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York all claim a place that did it first — what there is now bears little resemblance to 60 years ago. Today, new guns are far more energy- and cost-efficient than even just a few years ago, are often mounted on fixed towers rather than hauled place to place along the ground, and are able to make better snow in larger quant­ities at more variable temperature than ever before.

Said Kennedy, “For the best quality of snow that is econom­ical to make, the idea temperatures are in the 10-15 degree range with rel­atively low humidity. And that is what we have had in the hills for most of the month of November.”

Now. Okemo has long been known for the quality of its snowmaking, especially in the early season. It is not by chance. At this time of year, they have a dedicated staff of 24 divided into two 12-hour shifts seven days a week. There are 1,200 snow guns deployed throughout the area with more than 200 capable of operating at one time when the weather is right.

It is a massive operation all geared to make certain the mountain is open with quality snow conditions as early as possible, and fully covered and in full operation before Christmas.

It is a big investment.

“We spent $1 million on new snowguns in just the past year,” said Kennedy.

But it is not just the big areas that allocate resources to this.

Royal Mountain in Caroga Lake, which plans to open for the season today, is a lot smaller.

“We bought five new tower guns for this season. We now have full coverage on all our trails,” says long-time owner/manager Jim Blaise.

Other areas within an easy drive are ready to go, too. Those include the Olympic Regional Development Authority trio of Whiteface, Belleayre, and Gore; Oak Mountain in Speculator; Willard Mountain in Easton; Maple Ridge in Rotterdam; Jiminy Peak, just over the Massachusetts state line; Hunter, Windham, Catamount, and Plattekill in the Catskills; and Bromley, Stratton and Mt. Snow in southern Vermont. You won’t find new lifts and lodges this year. The focus has been on the snowmaking infrastructure and terrain development, especially new glades at several areas.

Counting on the magic of the snow dance once again will be Hickory in Warrensburg, which did not open last year and operated just two days the year before. The terrain there is legendary for its challenge, but it has very limited snowmaking and it takes a lot more than just a dusting of snow to support operations. There are no plans to add snowmaking this winter, so the area won’t open unless there is considerable help from the heavens.

The same is true about Big Tupper, which has been closed for several years in wake of a dispute over development of a four-season resort that includes the area property. That dispute is tied up in the courts, and, while volunteers have pledged to operate the ski hill, there is little infrastructure in place and it will take considerable natural snowfall to make the skiing appealing.

Then, there is West Mountain, just off Exit 18 of the Northway. What has been going on there is like a television drama. For those who want to follow the twists and turns, it is helpful to draw up a plot map and a cast of characters. For the rest of us who only want to know if the area will be open this winter, the news appears to be good.

A new operating group — Apex Capital, under the direction of Glens Falls native Spencer Montgomery, whose brother is a former Warren County district attorney — is planning to open the mountain in time to host an open house on Saturday, Dec. 14.

West has been a fixture of the local ski scene since the early 1960s, but there have been financial questions in recent years, and growing debt, along with management issues, placed the future of the area in jeopardy. But matters seem to have been sorted out at least for now and an aggressive ticket-pricing program for this winter seemS to have area skiers and riders willing to give it a chance once again. To see just what is happening and when and how much, check out www.westmtn.net.

In recent years, a combination of mild early-season temperatures and limited natural snowfall has delayed the arrival of good skiing until well into December. That doesn’t seem to be a problem this winter.

Notes

Ever find yourself huffing and puffing and almost turning blue when pulling on the ski boots for the first time since you put them away last spring? Here are a couple of things I have found help get that first day off to an easier start. First, in the days before my first trip, I’ll take a hair drier and stick it in the boot to warm up the liner. That also softens the plastic shell just enough to make it more flexible. Then, I take the liner and put a strip of duct tape along the interior from heel to mid-foot. That helps eliminate sock to liner friction. Then I take some talcum powder and sprinkle it in the liner. This helps to keep the inside of the boot dry. Finally, I take a moisture absorbent fabric cloth like Bounce from the clothes drier and stick one in each boot. By taking these simple steps, I find that my foot slides into the boot much more easily and I’m more comfortable getting out on the hill at the start of the season.

Gore Mountain can claim to be the oldest ski area in New York state, dating its origin back to 1934. It will celebrate its 80th anniversary after the start of the New Year. But some question the longevity. The current Gore area opened in 1964 while the original North Creek Ski Bowl limped into the 1970s, before it officially shut down. The Ski Bowl beginner lift was operated as a local recreation area for a number of years later. While they are adjacent, the connecting terrain between the Ski Bowl and Gore has been operating only the past four seasons. Gore is the oldest ski area in New York but only if you consider it as one with North Creek.

 
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