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May 2016

A Teachable Season

A look at the lessons learned from a winter tht humbled even some of the best snow management teams.

Written by Ken Gaitor | 0 comment

SMI Super PoleCat at Snowshoe, W. Va. Photo: Snowshoe

And I had plenty of company. “I never thought we would miss Christmas!” Chris Bates, general manager of Cataloochee Ski Area, N.C., confided. Well, I never thought we would have the lifts closed for Christmas, either, but we did. We closed the trails on Dec. 27 and did not re-open until Jan. 2. We all know that those are very important days in our world, and it’s hard to fathom not having them.

At Snowshoe, we are as prepared as possible to make all the snow we need. We have just about every type of snow gun out there: a fleet of air-water ground guns, a big arsenal of fan guns, and more than 200 stick guns. We are also fortunate to have a large air plant. It takes all of these resources to make it work for us.

We have our opening routes stacked with fans on the big wide areas. We cover the narrower areas with Ratniks, both ground guns and some on short poles. Our second phase routes have a lot of stick guns, so as it gets colder we can run them without impacting our air center very heavily. Using our 65 new low-e Snow Logic stick guns we were able to pump about 2,000 more gallons per minute at 24 degrees, without really noticing it in our air center. Our terrain parks are covered with stick guns or fans, so the massive amount of snow they require is less expensive to make. We have outlets to plug in carriage fans around high traffic areas that eat lots of snow, including the tops and bottoms of lifts. This allows us to make snow on these areas late in the season without turning on the air plant.

Snowshoe, W. Va., has 65 new Snow Logic DV4's on 30-foot towers. Photo: Snowshoe

In the Rear-View Mirror

Looking back, it seems we followed our usual sequence of guns and trails—we just couldn’t start the sequence until the New Year, instead of November, as is our custom. Prior to January, it was a ground and fan gun affair, in which we started over and over again. Make it, push it, watch it go bye-bye—repeat.

The year began in normal fashion. We fired up our snowmaking around Halloween. As we got further into November, though, the long range forecast showed no extended windows of snowmaking conditions, so the plan started to get weird. At first, we tried to ignore the forecasted patterns, and hoped the models would change (as they often do that time of year).

By the middle of November, we began to squirm a bit. We moved ground guns to the core routes to beef up the firepower there, so we would be ready when the windows opened. Toward the end of the month, we squeezed out what we could during the narrow windows we had, and focused all our resources on our core opening routes.

Flexibility was paramount. Everyone knew we would have to return to trails that we would normally try to finish on the first go-round.

As December rolled in and the weather got worse, we had to keep working on our opening routes. Then, in the weeks before the holidays, we sat back and watched our efforts melt away like sandcastles on the shore.

The New Year brought cold weather at last, and our snow crew hit it hard. We were basically starting from scratch, aiming for our third opening, and needed to re-open fast. The crew spent the first 100 hours getting the opening routes back, and then it was time for a big expansion. With some great snowmaking windows in the forecast, it was time to “dust and run” or “spray and pray.” We were running everything and the kitchen sink!

The snow team marched across the mountain in a way I had never seen. By the middle of January almost half the terrain was open and the weather looked good. We even saw some rounds of significant natural snow, which helped our confidence to move on with our terrain expansion.

By Feb. 1, most of the mountain was open, but we weren’t done. We made the call to keep going at it hard in preparation for President’s week and beyond. Now that the mountain had a little base, we dried the guns up a bit and built base depth for the longer haul. The snowmakers were tired and the groomers were barely keeping up.

February was good for temps and the mountain looked great. Then March hit and it was time to see how the snowmakers had done, and how good our groomers really are. It got warm once again in the second week of March, and stayed warm for about 12 days. The groomers had a hard time patching because it was staying soft around the clock. They had to use a wide range of techniques to keep the mountain going. When we got some cold temps at night they were able to put the trails back in good shape, and we made it to closing day with a good product.

Birds of a Feather

I have talked with several mountain managers around the East and found we’ve all become a bit wiser.

Thad Philpont at Snow Trails, Ohio, makes snow with 49 SMI PoleCats on towers and five portables. I asked, “Is the system automated?” He replied, “Yes, when it gets cold enough the snowmakers automatically get off their asses and go make snow,” recalling an old Clyde Perfect line. Philpont says he typically starts the guns up at 26 or 27 degrees, and can run every gun wide open at 15 degrees with the water supply he has. In a four-day window, he can have the entire mountain covered, pushed out and ready for sliding.

What would he do to better prepare for a season like this? Add more guns and another cooling tower. But if he adds more guns, he says, he will have to upgrade his pumping capacity.

That’s an important reminder. As we move into a future that may provide narrower windows for snowmaking, we will have to reevaluate our infrastructure, not just buy more and newer guns. Adding pumps and upsizing pipe as we replace it will be just as important as buying new snow gun technology.

Bates and his crew at Cataloochee know all about making snow in a marginal atmosphere. Even though the resort is located in the Southeast, it is often one of the first resorts east of the Rockies to open for the season. The team at Cataloochee has a bit of everything in its arsenal, from low-e sticks to traditional ground guns, and lots of fans. And they use them all.

“All snowmaking prior to Jan. 1 was done with conventional air/water Ratniks, because a lot of the snow we made was at 28 or 29 degrees wet bulb, and nothing else would run,” says Bates. “Once it got to 25 degrees, fans and sticks do a really good job, but above that we rely on old air/water.”

Ratnik Baby X-2's performed well in marginal temps this season at Cataloochee, N.C. Photo: Cataloochee

Bates’ experience was similar to ours at Snowshoe, except he had four opening days, the first on Nov. 15. In January, he threw caution to the wind, and kept all his guns running right through the high demand periods for electricity. The money he had saved on electricity in November and December was going out the door by running compressors through those high-priced periods. But he had to do it to get as much terrain open as possible, as fast as possible … sound familiar?

Bates says Cataloochee had already planned to add another compressor this off-season, but after the challenges the resort experienced this past winter, he’s adding two.

Mount Snow, Vt., director of mountain operations Dave Moulton says that he “leaned heavily on fan guns, and for the most part they did very well.” Mount Snow deploys more than 250 SMI PoleCats on its primary trails. When conditions were really marginal, the snowmakers dragged in some ground guns to cover certain tough areas. HKD three- and four-step guns also produced well for Mount Snow, although the quality of snow wasn’t as high. But quality is not as important when it’s raining and warm every week.

There are approximately 240 HKD impulse guns at Mount Snow, Vt. As of 2014, the resort's entire snow gun fleet is comprised of low-e equipment. Photo: Mount Snow

Mount Snow also adjusted its grooming strategy to preserve snow. It’s prudent to let snowmaking piles leach out, so to the fullest extent possible, the area resisted the urge to jump right in and push the piles out—but it was hard to wait. In retrospect, Moulton says, he would have had his team spread the piles out to just three cat widths rather than cover entire trails edge-to-edge.

Careful planning and communication between snowmaking and grooming is invaluable during a season like this, especially when it comes to snow placement. Putting snow where it needs to go when it is cold is the key. Stashing conservation piles, limiting terrain width, and not grooming “wall to wall” help preserve snow in these conditions. As we all learned, it’s best to groom around warm ground until it’s cold, then patch those areas.

We learned a lot about grooming, too. Carefully choose the nights you are going to push. Also, keep groomers off the snow in warm and rainy weather if you can. A winch cat is also a fantastic tool for patching and farming snow in warm weather. Stay flexible with your grooming, think on your feet, and make changes when necessary.

Final Thoughts, Remaining Questions

We all have different circumstances to work with, but in general our struggles are the same—we need the white gold to survive.

Having an abundance of air in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic, where we see a lot of marginal snowmaking temperatures, seems like a big advantage, except for the cost. Air is always a limiting factor above 20 degrees, and especially at marginal temps between 26 and 30. It’s great to have a lot of fan guns, but that requires a big investment up front. If the temps are there, stick guns are killer. I like having the large air system to fall back on, and don’t really see it going away in the near future. After a marginal season, it’s tempting to think of adding more air capacity, like Cataloochee is.

Ideally, you have the arsenal in place and you learn how to tweak the system, according to the season’s weather, to balance efficiency with a fast opening sequence.

Bates and Philpont both emphasize the importance of squirreling away capital for a time such as this when funds may tighten up. In cold and snowy years they save money by making less snow, while making more money thanks to the crowds drawn by natural snowfall. Then, in the warm dry years, they spend more on snowmaking while putting less money in the coffers. Still, this allows them to keep up with maintenance capital “must dos” in a year when patching things together would be the norm.

Moulton stresses the role of leadership when dealing with less than ideal weather: “The key is that behind the curtain, you can pout and say this sucks. But when you get out in front of the staff, stay upbeat. We have to keep the morale up by celebrating the small successes and doing the best we can.”

Is there a golden snow gun? How many gallons are enough? What’s the best plan? There are as many answers as there are people on earth. One thing we can be certain of, though, is the faster we can make more snow, the better off we’ll be.

That requires us to take a step back and look at the system as a whole and develop goals. “Let’s max the system out on water at 25 degrees,” for example. How do we achieve that: More guns? Higher pressures? More air? Fan power? Low-e sticks? “Let’s set a goal of reducing our water temperature to 38 degrees before it hits the hill in November.” How do we get there? Coming up with three or four big, achievable goals for the people who run your snowmaking operation can break the task down to manageable levels with defined steps.

Is there a weakness in your system that made itself more apparent this season? Discuss opportunities for improvement with your team by encouraging open dialogue. Does it need to be a capital project in the future? Are there creative ways to work around it until that money can be made available? Are there personnel issues that reared their ugly head during hard times?

Those who have been in this business long enough have seen tough seasons before, even a few like this one. Looking back at the lessons we learned will make us all stronger people and better operators. Our ability to learn from our failures and capitalize on our successes is the key to handling it better each time. People are great at focusing and capitalizing on their strengths, but real growth happens when we learn to acknowledge and address our weaknesses. And this past season gave us one of our best learning opportunities in a long time.