No natural snow, no problem for some of Colorado's ski areas
Aspen Mountain and Copper Mountain make due with little help from mother nature
People come to Colorado from all over the world to visit our mountains and resorts every winter. A big reason for that is the light and fluffy snow that falls here.
Early in the ski season, however, mother nature is often more foe than friend. Much of our annual snow falls after the month of November. So what can ski resorts do when there isn't enough natural snow? They make it, and sometimes lots of it.
Aspen Mountain has an extensive snow making system that covers roughly 30% of the entire ski area.
Through most of the month of November, efforts at the resort have been focused on getting the race course ready for the Women's World Cup, happening on November 24 and 25.
Chaz Peiffer is a Senior Snow Maker at Aspen Mountain, and says that the snow they make for the racing course is very different than what the public will ski on.
"We want to build a hard, wet, heavy kind of snow. So it packs down hard. The skiers like a really hard, firm, race course. All ice basically," said Peiffer.
Regardless of what the snow is being made for, it's all basically made the same way. Compressed air and water are shot out of a nozzle, called a snow gun, at high pressure. The two mix and form a snow flake before hitting the ground, as long as air temperatures are above freezing.
Man-made snow is typically much more dense and has a higher water content than natural snow. The snow guns that some resorts use can blow a fifty foot pile in just one night!
"Once we have a pretty good size pile, we've determined we have enough snow in that area, we will call in the Aspen Mountain Cat Crew. Those guys will come in and will start to shape the hill. Filling in the low spots, getting a good consistent surface throughout the race course," said Chaz.
He also makes the job sound a lot easier than it actually is. Along with the potential for frost bite and hypothermia, the snow is made on steep trails where hazards are not always easy to spot.
"We are working at night time, out in the cold," said Peiffer. "You're working under water. Water constantly going around you. High pressure hoses, with air and water in them. Very dangerous. That's something you need to take your time and pay attention to. A lot of the other things, it's just navigating the hill at night time. There is potential for avalanches. We are making perfect conditions. We are making heavy, wet snow on steep pitches and it's incredibly dangerous. We've got a good staff here, knowledgeable staff. It's all about navigating the hill and keep your head about you."
Aspen Mountain also has an automated snow making system that helps to alleviate some of the risks and difficulties of the job. The compressors, valves, and hoses are directly hooked into computer software, that enables a controller to turn the snow guns on and off with the push of a button.
The software can tell you how much snow is being made, and the air temperature at each gun. Air temperatures are very important to the snow making process. If it gets too warm, you wont be able to make snow at all, and if it gets too cold, the water could freeze in the hose. The snow makers at Aspen Mountain say that 0° F is the perfect temperature for snow making.
Once the snow is made, the other side of the coin is taking care of it. At Copper Mountain, this is absolutely crucial. This is the second year in a row the mountain is hosting the US Olympic Speed Center.
"The ski team speed center is the only, full length, racing training venue of its kind in the world, this time of year," said Austyn Williams of Copper Mountain's Public Relations.
The snow on the course must be maintained to specific rules and guidelines set forth by racing officials. Nate Brisbane, a groomer of the race course at Copper Mountain, says that the snow has to be spread two- feet thick everywhere.
"That's mandatory for the race fences and the perimeter, so safety officials can anchor their A and B nets in it. That establishes a good base for the whole run."
The snow is groomed every night, and depending on what the trail will be used for, vastly different techniques can be employed.
"There is natural snow on our natural trails where we don't make snow, we will use things called compactor bars, which doesn't till the snow it just packs it down. Which helps to keep the integrity of the snow flake, which then gives a better natural skiing surface. It's not preferred by racers. Racers prefer a harder, more solid skiing surface," says Brisbane.
Taking care of man-made snow does have its challenges for a snow groomer. It's heavier, and icier. You must employ a lot more work with the snow cat to achieve the results you are looking for. According to Brisbane, it's good to a groomer on a powder day.
"When it snows a whole bunch it's always good to be a groomer, cause it's easy to groom powder. When it's all tracked up and it's harder and it's icy then you have to do a little bit more work. Blade work, and filling in the holes and stuff," said Brisbane.
Hopefully snow groomers will have an easier time this winter, than last, when snow was scarce. In fact, this winter is looking like it should be closer to average in the mountain snowfall department. That would be a big improvement over last year's sub par performance by Mother Nature.
The reason for that?
A lack of El Nino or La Nina for the first time in a long time has led to lower snowfall totals.
A neutral pattern, as it's called, will typically bring above normal temperatures to Colorado, and average amounts of precipitation. The only thing we can do now, is wait and see how this winter shapes up. As always, the First Warn 8 Weather Team will track the weather closely, and provide you with the most accurate forecasts on the Western Slope. Stay tuned!
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