There’s No Business Like Snow Business
When late fall chills hit Winter Park, and 6am arrives cloaked in darkness, the unsung heroes of ski season emerge from their hibernation. It is the season of the snowmaker; the no man’s land between Trestle’s first frost and Winter Park Resorts first natural flakes. While Mother Nature still waits for her wake up call, they take to the front lines, armed and ready. 300 acres of the mountains lay waiting for their handiwork. The mountain is in their hands, relying on their dedication and prep work.
Their shift starts with a meeting in the control building, where they congregate with an energy that falls between the diligence of firefighters returning to their station, and a raft guide’s playful preparation for an early morning ride.
They are all hands on deck, as dawn begins to illuminate the morning sky. The cold has little effect on the group as they wait for the crackling of their walkies-talkies. It’s nothing compared to ice fishing, one of them jokes, after telling the group he opted for non-insulated boots because his feet are actually getting too warm. Together the team loads into their ride, headed off to the first check point on their routine.
Their breath is visible, but their voices drown under the hum of the guns. Communication evolves into sign language. Beneath the spray of the snow guns, the makers test, signal, and emerge with snow melting on their faces and droplets collecting in their beards. A big thumbs up, and the crew moves along to check the next set of hoses. Footprints are the only disruptor to the newly created snow, and their cycle continues.
Although the majority of the ski season is reliant on Mother Nature and her fickle ways, our Winter Park Resort snow making team does try to supplement her snow supply, at least until mid-January. As soon as temperatures permit, the crew is working to coat what they can in a solid base of snowy goodness. The freezing temperatures are just the first necessary ingredient in the science of snowmaking. Humidity also plays a factor in our system’s ability to blow snow. This relationship is called the “Wet Bulb Temperature.” Working from a two pipe system, water and compressed air are blown simultaneously, and as the mixture falls to the ground it freezes, as long as the temperature and humidity are willing to comply. At least, that’s putting it in simplest terms.
We also get a (for us non-sciency folks) perplexing effect called Temperature Inversion. Although it could be easily assumed that the air at the highest elevation at Winter Park Resort is much colder than akin the Fraser Valley, often this isn’t the case. Warm air rises and captures a pocket of cold air below it, making the lower elevation colder than the higher elevation. Translation: When you drive through the Valley and your car says it’s 28 degrees, the reason we aren’t making snow is because the temps at the ideal snow making locations are actually warmer. Learn more about this phenomenon form NOAA.
But what do our snow makers think about all of this? They chuckle modestly.
They say that the fun for them is getting to “tinker with the toys”- another science in its own right. They gesture to the equipment that looks like oversized Tonka Trucks. There is more to it than what they say. Following along their route, they are in constant motion. Not much conversation passes between them, but as snowballs are tossed, grins are shared between hooded figures striding down to the base. They are here for the cold, for the snow, and for the winter adventures. Most will stay at the Resort, either following the snow cycle, becoming groomers, or they’ll take up another vacant post to ride out the remainder of the season.
For now, though, they will work under the cover of darkness to create the snowy paradise riders enjoy under the Colorado sunshine. They are like snow fairies, getting everything ready for the morning crowds fighting for first chair and fresh tracks.