Light snow means heavy work at Sunlight Mountain

Opening day still to be determined, says spokesperson

Snowcat driver Gilbert Loya takes a snow gate up to the top of Sunlight Mountain to help build a snow base before the opening of the resort.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

With patches of bare earth poking out from underneath the snow, two workers weren’t jaded by the fact there’s still plenty that needs to happen before doors can open.

“Since we got a little snow, we’re getting ready to tackle the hill,” Matt Nelson, 44, said. “Yesterday, I was driving the Land Cruiser to the top of the hill.”

As folks in Glenwood Springs woke up Thursday morning to freezing drizzle, the previous 72 hours saw Sunlight Mountain Ski Resort accumulate just 6 inches of fresh powder, according to numbers provided by the resort.

This is why Sunlight went into “wait-and-see” mode earlier this week, with its original season opener of Dec. 10 being pushed back.

It’s a different story at Snowmass Village and Aspen, according to the National Weather Service. While Glenwood Springs is likely to see another 3 inches of snow accumulation through Friday, resorts in Pitkin County expect at least 1-2 feet of snowfall by this weekend.

But light, early-season snowfall just means Sunlight’s mountain crews have a few more days to diligently prepare the runs before it’s finally time to shred.

Taking a break from the 32-degree cold and light flurries inside a shop east of Sunlight’s base lodge early Thursday morning, Nelson joined colleague Travis Forristal as they began highlighting what needed to be accomplished before Sunlight could officially welcome riders.

Much of it entails making enough artificial snow to get a good base to support the natural snow accumulation.

“Tonight, we’ll be ready to go,” Forristal, 37, said. “Right when it gets cold enough, we’ll fire (the snowmakers) up.”

Snowcat driver Gilbert Loya takes a snow gate up to the top of Sunlight Mountain to help build a snow base before the opening of the resort.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Sunlight workers plan to spend the next few days shooting snow from about 10 guns interspersed up and down the mountain. The artificial snow is created by infusing water and compressed air.

The water is pumped from nearby ponds, but having enough to convert into snow depends on two factors: the weather and whether sources like Four Mile Creek freeze over.

“Our ponds drain into Four Mile, and we’ll suck it out,” Forristal said. “But a lot of the time, it freezes. So our water levels start going down.”

But the prospect of continuing to battle spotty weather patterns to spray enough snow on the mountain doesn’t phase Forristal or Nelson, two skiers who used to work in completely different professions once upon a time.

Forristal, who’s worked for Sunlight the past 10 years, used to make boxes. Nelson, who just started with Sunlight this week, used to ride on 60-foot ocean waves while operating tugboats.

Sunlight Mountain Building and Grounds Supervisor Andy Hawes shovels snow from the deck at the resort on Thursday morning.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

As Taco Cat, a feline rescued from Rifle in summer, sat on a piece of equipment inside the shop, Nelson said though the delay is disappointing, working to get the mountain open is actually a good time.

“You jump on a snowmobile and you try to head up to the top of the lift so that you can run the lift operators up and get everything cleaned off,” he said. “It’s hard. I mean, you get stuck and all that. But you get unstuck and you keep going.”

When opening day does come, these two Colorado-born skiers get first dibs.

Looking forward to a 360-degree view from the top, Forristal said it’s a quiet prelude to opening day.

“Hopefully it stays cold at night, it stays cold during the day, where we can take our guns and run ’em next four days in a row,” he said. “We’ll be opened, guaranteed.”

Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or

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