Sunlight snowmaking is in full swing, in anticipation of possible early opening
Ross Terry can remember starting snowmaking operations in October maybe only once in his long tenure with Sunlight Mountain Resort outside of Glenwood Springs.
But nothing quite like last week, when the area received 6 inches of natural snow Tuesday, followed by frigid temperatures that allowed for a 36-hour stretch of continuous snowmaking Tuesday night through Wednesday.
During a normal 24-hour period when temperatures are right, Sunlight can put close to 2 acre-feet of crystalized water on the ground, according to Terry, the assistant general manager and operations director for the resort.
That translates to about 4 acre-feet of snow, or enough to cover 4 acres with a foot of snow depth, Terry explained.
“If this is not the earliest, it ties the earliest,” Terry said of the October start. “This is definitely the coldest I’ve seen it get in October.”
Snowmaking operations continued at Sunlight during the colder nighttime and morning hours late in the week and through the weekend, and the ski area is on its way to a possible early opening — if the weather continues to cooperate.
So, what does it entail to build that all-important early-season snow base at Sunlight?
Sunlight has enough water rights on Four Mile Creek to pump about 450 gallons per minute of water into the snowmaking system, according to Mountain Manager and head snowmaker Mike Baumli.
That system includes a series of three containment ponds, two in adjacent Babbish Gulch and another just off upper Four Mile Road.
Water is regulated from those ponds and piped into Sunlight’s pumping station.
The pump house is loud, as water is pushed through and into the large hoses that feed the eight snow guns on the mountain.
“I come in here periodically to check the flow and make sure the pumps are running good, and that we’re not taking more water than we’re supposed to,” Baumli said.
Last week, operating off of just one of two available compressors, Baumli said they were able to pump 385 gallons of water per minute through the system.
The more-efficient HKD snow guns in use now allow Sunlight to operate with less air and less water per gun.
“A big part of the ski business these days is sustainability, which means being efficient with power and water usage,” Baumli said. “We can run three of these [guns] on the same air that used to run one gun, and flow a little less water per gun.
“As the technology gets better, it helps us to be more efficient … which is good not only for the environment but for us as a business.”
Sunlight limits its snowmaking to the lower part of the mountain, on the Midway run and parts of lower Joslin where ski races take place during the winter.
Even if the daytime temperatures rise back into the mid-40s at Sunlight’s 8,300-foot base elevation, as they are expected to this week, the snow already on the ground in large piles should remain intact, Baumli said
“Once it’s on the ground, we leave it in piles and the snow tends to insulate itself,” he said. “With the temperatures warming back up, we’ll keep it in piles as long as we can.”
Sunlight has a scheduled opening day of Dec. 13, but if favorable conditions continue the area might open as early as the weekend after Thanksgiving, according to Sunlight Marketing and Sales Director Troy Hawks.
In the meantime, Sunlight is closed for all activities while snowmaking operations are underway.
“We advise hikers, snowshoers and cross country skiers to utilize the Babbish Gulch backcountry trails until snowmaking is complete,” Hawks said.
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