Give a snowmaker a hug. They’ve earned it! Most people don’t realize what goes into getting our ski season underway. Unfortunately, Mother Nature doesn’t always bring us the snow as early as we want it. Luckily, the snowmaking crews are there to save the day. Not only do they get the mountains to open up early, but they also let the resorts stay open even later. Think about it: assuming the resorts had enough natural snow to open by January, with as much traffic as the base areas see every year, we’d be walking around in the mud by March. Instead, snowmakers make our season much longer than it would be naturally, enabling the resident ski bums to proudly say, “Yeah, I get over 100 days a season.” The question is, though; how do the snowmakers make it all happen?
Honestly, it sounds super easy; just shoot water up into the air and then wait for the snow to fall, right? However, as with most things that seem very simple, there is a certain degree of difficulty involved. First off, everything revolves around the wet bulb. I know it sounds like a made up thing, but it’s not; the wet bulb is the relationship between the ambient temperature and humidity. Imagine being sprayed with water while standing outside in the winter; the wet bulb would be the temperature that your bare skin feels when exposed to the air. This number, derived by some sort of mathematical trickery, lets the snowmaking crews know when to start making snow, but it also affects how they make the snow throughout the day and night. Depending on what the wet-bulb temperature is, the crews adjust the air and water pressure accordingly.
You know when I asked you to imagine getting sprayed with water and standing outside in the cold? Well, that is exactly what the snowmaking crews have to do in order to check the quality of snow. The ratio of air and water has to be constantly adjusted, so one of the snowmakers has to stand under the plume of snow and make sure that it isn’t too wet or too dry. If it’s too dry, the snow will blow away, and if it’s too wet, the snow will just melt off. The snowmakers check the quality in a few ways, including analyzing how much snow builds up vs bounces off of their uniform, making snowballs and squeezing, and other various tricks. So, if you’ve ever been on the lift and seen a snowmaker standing under the plume or vigorously squeezing snowballs, they’re not crazy. They’re just trying to provide us all with a solid base layer of quality snow.
Most resorts have two 12-hour shifts running during peak snowmaking season in order to capitalize on the coldest temperatures. When everything lines up just right, they are able to make snow 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Think about that. While you rest up before an early season ski day, snowmakers are out there in the middle of the night trying to lay down more giant piles of snow, all in an attempt to open more skiable terrain.
The amount of effort and science that goes into snowmaking is amazing, and considering what their hard work means for all of us, I’d say that we owe them…a lot! So, rather than wasting time with tired old sayings like, ‘blown snow blows’ or complaints about the ‘ribbon of death’ and ‘landing strip’ we should all be grateful to these hardworking folks because the resorts are opening and the lifts are turning because of them. Enjoy those early season turns for what they are, and make sure that your legs are ready for that first powder day.