EAGLE COUNTY — Businesses that depend on nature often have to adapt. In the ski business, adapting means being able to make your own snow. But even that human boost needs some cooperation from the elements.
The Vail Valley has had a warm fall so far. Those warm temperatures — until this week — may have been good for die-hard cyclists, but not so much for snowmaking crews at Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek Resort.
There’s a science to snowmaking, and nature has to provide low temperatures and a little more to really get the snow guns running.
Crews look at what’s called “wet bulb” temperatures. That means using a combination of both temperature and relative humidity.
Gary Shimanowitz, vice president of mountain operations at Beaver Creek, said the drier the air, the more effective snowmaking operations can be. Those temperatures need to be below 26 degrees to 28 degrees on the wet-bulb scale to get the best use from the equipment.
And, Shimanowitz said, colder temperatures help make more and better snow.
“If it’s 28 degrees, then 14 degrees, it’s not just double the snow,” he said. “It’s a non-linear scale.”
Watching the weather
Managers also have to carefully watch the weather, both forecasts and in real time.
“I look at as many (forecasts) as I possibly can,” Vail Mountain Snowmaking Manager Dave Tucholke said. That research includes the National Weather Service, opensnow.com, AccuWeather and others. Snowmaking crews average out those forecasts and then add a good-sized grain of salt.
There are also weather stations across the resorts and the mountains that provide instant information.
If temperatures and humidity cooperate, as they have this week, crews can make a lot of snow.
“You can literally make twice to two-thirds more if we can run all day,” Tucholke said.
With the equipment running flat out, Beaver Creek can cover 48 acres of terrain with a foot of snow in 24 hours.
Crews move the snow guns around, so they’re able to spread the snow around. In some places on Beaver Creek, the water hydrants that connect to the machinery can be just 150 feet apart, at the edges of runs.
Where to move equipment and people takes a lot of planning.
Tucholke said he’s usually awake at about 5 a.m. these days. He’ll get in touch with his team to find out how much work has been done. Later, he’ll get on the mountain to see for himself and decide where to move crews and equipment.
Right now, crews are working 24 hours a day — in shifts — to get as much work done as possible.
There’s more terrain to cover at Beaver Creek. There, about 700 acres of terrain can be covered with man-made snow. There’s less territory to cover at Vail — a bit more than 450 acres.
Making, then moving
Once the snow is blown, it’s up to the snow cat crews to move it around.
Even that isn’t a simple task. Sally Gunter, senior communications manager for Vail and Beaver Creek, said piles of snow have to sit for a while to dry out before cats can move them around. Otherwise, the snow turns icy and hard. That’s great for ski racing, but not for recreational skiing.
Cat crews stay busy not just with newly blown snow, but also the snow that’s been moved around by skiers during the day. At night, cat crews move snow from the freshly made wales and the edges of the runs back into the center.
At the moment, a lot of departments are working on the mountain, Gunter said.
“Snowmaking is a top priority now,” Tucholke said. That means bringing in people from other, less-busy departments to work on the mountain, as needed.
“We want to be as efficient as possible,” Tucholke said. “People are volunteering.”
They’re also hoping for some nature-made snow, and sooner than later.
“The great thing about Vail and Beaver Creek is that it doesn’t take a lot of natural snow to get the mountain open really quickly,” Gunter said. “We’re in a great weather pattern now, so hopefully that will continue.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org and @scottnmiller.