What is the best promotion of skiing? Many would say six inches of fresh snow in local backyards.
Well, sometimes that doesn’t happen, at least not as soon as skiers would like. This year, for example.
Enter the snowmakers, the early-season heroes of ski areas, especially in the Northeast. While outside may be green — or brown — at home, on the ski hills there is snow and the lifts are spinning.
As temperatures drop below freezing, even if it’s just overnight, modern snow guns can crank out trail cover and, while sometimes it looks like ribbons of white bordered by brown on both sides, early-season sliding can be very good as all wait for nature to catch up.
Just about every ski area in our region will be open at least partially next week, an especially welcome development at this time when opportunities for getting out of the house have been limited so far this winter.
It hasn’t always been this way. Snowmaking has actually been around almost 90 years, starting out in Hollywood as means of creating winter sets for movies. The first limited ski area use was in the Catskills in the early 1950s. And among the earliest widespread application was at Hunter Mountain in the 1960s, when top-to-bottom coverage was created and the area got a lot of traction from its slogan “The Snowmaking Capital of the World.”
There is no single capital today. Almost every major ski area has embraced the need for snowmaking, and many now boast coverage of 95% or more of their skiable trail terrain.
The change over the years is stunning. For example, Okemo once postponed its debut as a ski area into the next year because it didn’t snow until January. Today with close to 100% trail coverage, the Ludlow, Vermont area is a reliable early-season favorite, regularly opening in November as soon as evening temperatures fall below freezing.
Neighboring Killington successfully hosted international Women’s World Cup ski competitions over three recent Thanksgiving holidays. That meant covering their Superstar trail with snow 3-7 feet deep at a time of year when for most of us raking leaves is generally more common than making turns.
HOW DO THEY DO IT?
The concept of snowmaking is simple. Snow is produced by forcing water and pressurized air through a snow gun that shoots the mix into the air, where it falls as snow.
There are essentially three types of guns: the original surface units attached to hoses that can be dragged anywhere and hooked up to water lines; fan guns that look like large cannons on wheels with their own compressors that are capable of producing large quantities of snow very quickly; and energy efficient tower guns, with adjustable nozzles that are mounted in fixed positions high above the ground so they’re capable of targeting the snow from the elevated position.
All of this is made possible by water drawn from local sources. If you have a good reliable supply and the right pumping and piping, you can have good snowmaking. Take Gore Mountain in North Creek, for example. It has the Hudson River nearby, a pump house in the village, and the proper infrastructure to send ample water up to a storage reservoir on the hill.
The general rule of thumb is to be efficient. Snowmaking requires an air temperature of 27 degrees or less. More precisely, it is a measure of a combination of air temperature and humidity, known as “wet bulb.”
The lower the humidity and temperature, the better the quality of the snow. Early in the season, a wet snow is made to help freeze the ground and build a base for trail coverage. Later, a drier, lighter snow is produced to create, maintain and ideally supplement natural snowfall.
Years ago, a finger held in the air was all the snowmakers had to determine what they were about to make. Often they would stand in front of a surface gun, back to the nozzle, and turn it on to check the mix collected on the back of their parkas. Since this was most often done in the middle of the night in the middle of the winter, not everyone was suited for this line of work.
Technology has changed this considerably. At Gore, snow is now made on several popular trails by an automated system controlled at the pump house by the on mountain reservoir. Cruise the Sunway, Quicksilver, Twister, TopRidge, Pine Knot or Tahawas trails and likely the surface was crafted via the internet. All 312 guns on those trails are controlled by computer, and each one can be adjusted individually.
This technology is not unique to Gore. It is growing more common each year and allows mountain managers at all areas to redeploy snowmakers to expand trail count, create optimal conditions and repair trails after heavy use. The result is good skiing even when nature is skimpy with its support.
Combine what snowmakers create with the work done to fashion their product by those who drive the grooming machines that distribute and cure the snow, and you won’t have to look out the back window at home to know there is good skiing in the mountains.
WOBBLY BARN WON’T OPEN
The social part of skiing has always been an important part of the sport’s appeal, and since the 1960s, the Wobbly Barn on the access road to Killington has been on top of the list of “apres” places in the East. But the legendary bar/restaurant won’t open this winter, a recent decision based on COVID-19 circumstances.
OCS AT PLATTEKILL
Ski travel this winter has been severely cut back and that has had a major effect on ski clubs in our area that regularly offer an appealing menu of trips. Europe and Canada have effectively been shut down for ski travel, western ski areas have seen large drops in bookings, and many day trips from our area have been closed off to buses. One interesting exception to all that will be Thursday, Jan. 7, when the OC Ski Club takes over the Plattekill Ski Area off Route 30 in the Catskills. The club has reserved the entire area for the day. For details check ocskiclub.org.
NEW SPOKESPERSON FOR GORE
Stephanie Backes, an Ogdensburg native with family living in Warren County, is the new spokesperson for Gore Mountain. A former ski instructor at Gore, she comes to the position from Copper Mountain in Colorado, where she worked for eight years as the communications manager, then marketing manager. Backes replaces long time Gore staffer Emily Stanton, who is now with the Olympic Regional Development Authority in Lake Placid.
BELLEAYRE WILL OPEN WEDNESDAY
The Olympic Regional Development Authority announced Tuesday that Belleayre Mountain in Highmount will open Wednesday for the 2020-21 season. The mountain is preparing for a limited opening, weather permitting. Access to the mountain Wednesday will be limited to season passholders or those using the first day of their Frequent Skier Card.
While e-tickets and window tickets will not be for sale on opening weekend, they are now available for days through the remainder of the season. These tickets are limited in quantity, and guests are encouraged to pre-purchase early and lock in desired dates. For ticketing and pricing on season passes, visit www.belleayre.com.
Phil Johnson can be reached at [email protected].