Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Gore Mountain Snowmaking Tour: 11/18/2011

If you’ve seen Gore Mountain’s announcements this fall or read my Adirondack Ski Season Preview, then you already know about the 130 new high-efficiency tower guns that have been installed on Sunway, Sleighride, Quicksilver, Otter Slide, 3B, Sagamore and Wild Air. The new guns are a big deal: they represent the single biggest upgrade to the snowmaking system since tapping the Hudson River 15 years ago. On Friday morning I met with Mike Pratt, Gore Mountain’s General Manager, to talk about Gore’s snowmaking operations and take a tour of the mountain, just as crews were shutting down the guns following the first night of snowmaking operations.

Looking down Quicksilver after the first night of snowmaking operations, Nov 18, 2011. 

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Mike: Last night was our first night of snowmaking. We ran more than 80 guns on Topridge, Sunway, and Quicksilver. We’re shutting the system down for now (9am) because the temperatures are warming up, but we’ll start back up late this afternoon and run through the night again.

Jeff: What’s the plan for opening day?

Mike: We’ll have Foxlair to Sunway to Quicksilver open. That’s the shortest route down the mountain and we have 63 tower guns that we can utilize on that route. We’ll also try to get Topridge open – that works really well because it spreads out the crowd and it gives us the ability to offer expert and intermediate terrain.

Jeff: So that’s a similar strategy to last year. We came up on the Sunday of opening weekend, the second operating day of the season, and it was really great having Topridge available.

Mike: Right, Topridge is a thousand vertical feet and that’s about all the legs can handle at that point in the season.

Jeff: And then how will snowmaking operations progress across the mountain?

Heading up Sunway in Mike's utility vehicle

Mike: A lot of times what we have for opening weekend will need a little more massaging to get it into shape, adding depth and width. As we expand it’s basically a case of connecting the dots. We’ll go the rest of the way down Sunway, and maybe hook in Showcase to Lower Sleighride. Up on Bear we’ll make sure Foxlair and Ruby Run are in good shape and then go to Pine Knot and Tannery. After that we’ll try to get up to the summit: Cloud, Headwaters, Hawkeye. Last year we sacrificed Chatimac early in the season for the High Peaks area. That allowed us to increase our trail count and spread out the people, and that strategy worked pretty well. With the new tower guns this year our goal will be to make more snow faster and get more trails open earlier.

Jeff: How much more efficient are the new guns? Are they double the efficiency of what they’re replacing?

Looking at one of the new high-efficiency HKD tower guns

Mike: They run about 20 - 25% of the energy consumption of the old guns. Basically we’re running 4 guns for the energy of one old ground gun. A good analogy is that it’s like switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs. You know, the ground guns are great – they are versatile and they’re a real workhorse. But they use a lot of compressed air to throw the water droplets up into the air so they can freeze.

There’s also tremendous labor efficiency with the new guns. The new equipment is permanently installed, so we minimize set-up and take-down time, dragging guns around, snowmobile time, wear and tear. It makes the transitional efficiencies much better.

Jeff: On how much of Gore’s total trail acreage are the new high-efficiency tower guns installed? Would you estimate maybe a quarter of the trail acreage?

The summit's brown, but not for long. Snowmaking is already underway on Topridge.

Mike: It’s probably 20 – 25% of our trail acreage, but that’s the 25% that we blow the most on and re-surface the most often, so the efficiency benefits are magnified. That acreage probably represents more like 30 – 40% of our overall snowmaking operations.

We had some older tower equipment on Quicksilver, Sunway, Sleighride. They’re not quite as efficient as the new guns, but still much more efficient that the ground guns, so we’ve relocated those over to Sleeping Bear and Pete Gay. Those are four thousand foot long trails that required manual snowmaking set-up, so relocating the older tower guns will help the North Side tremendously.

Jeff: What’s the status on the 30 additional guns for Showcase and Wild Air?

Mike: We’re still looking at those, hopefully for this year. We’ve also got 10 more tower guns that are demonstrators from different manufacturers installed around the mountain. There are a few from SMI on upper Sunway, some Techno-Alpins down at the Ski Bowl. The manufacturers all make quality equipment, but different equipment may work better in certain conditions or in a particular location.

Looking down Topridge

Jeff: What would be the next step for Gore in terms of upgrading the snowmaking plant? More high-efficiency guns? Or would it be automation, or more air compressor / water pumping capacity?

Mike: Well, of course we want to analyze how well the new equipment works out this year. But I still believe we are gun-poor: we need more guns to be more efficient. The energy savings and labor efficiency are low-hanging fruit for us. So we’ll try to add more high-efficiency fixed guns in various locations. Probably the next limitation would be water pumping capacity. We haven’t been able to regularly utilize all of our pumping capacity in the past because of our low gun inventory, but now we will utilize that pumping capacity to a much greater percentage.

Jeff: How about compressed air capacity?

Air compressors at the top of the Gondola

Mike: Although compressed air is critical to the process, I would invest the money in guns rather than in compressors because of the energy costs. We do have one very large older diesel compressor and we have a goal of replacing that with a modern electric one.

Jeff: What’s the water pumping capacity now?

Mike: We can push 4800 gallons per minute up the mountain from the pump house at the reservoir, and another 4800 gallons per minute from the river pump house to the reservoir. Some of that water from the river we can use directly at the Ski Bowl, which means that we can max out at around 6000 gallons per minute total. But usually the system operates at 4800.

Jeff: And what is the compressed air capacity?

Mike: We have eight air compressors that put out a total of 27,000 cubic feet per minute. Five electric compressors are located just below the Burnt Ridge Quad, near our electrical substation, two more are at the top of the gondola, and there’s a large diesel compressor over by the shop at the base.

Valve house interior

Although we’re not automated, the pumps and compressors can be started, stopped and monitored remotely. We charge the entire system with air and utilize the pipelines as a big reservoir, but with water we only charge the parts of the system that we are using so that we don’t have freeze-ups. We have sixteen distribution valve houses all over the mountain, so if you decide you want to make snow on Burnt Ridge for example, you have to go to a couple of different valve houses to send the water to the right places.

Jeff: And what does that translate to in terms of acre/feet per day, in optimal conditions?

Mike: I’d say that puts us pretty close to 30 acre/feet per day when we’re able to use all of our pumping capacity. In the past, we would only hit our maximum pumping capacity irregularly, the new equipment will now allow us to hit it much more regularly.

Water distribution in one of the 16 valve houses

Jeff: Back before the Hudson River pipeline (1996), I can remember years when the snowmaking crew essentially ran out of water, bringing snowmaking operations to a halt.

Mike: Right. Before the pipeline we were pushing about 80 million gallons per year through the system. Now we’re pushing 250 million gallons through.

Fan gun outlets have been added at gondola towers on The Arena

Jeff: Will snowmaking eventually be added to Pipeline, the connector trail to the Ski Bowl?

Mike: Certainly it will happen some day, but there are some things we want to do that run first. For example, we would like to start it farther to skier’s right as you leave the North Side, so that you miss that first belly. Once we’ve undertaken those improvements, we’ll add the snowmaking. In the meantime, because of its pitch, that trail doesn’t take a lot of wear and tear and the natural snow usually takes care of it.

Jeff: And how about 46er?

Mike: Until we invested in more guns and had the ability to make our snow quicker, it was hard to prioritize adding extra pipelines that we wouldn’t get to. So it’s a strategy of sequencing things to get the biggest positive impact from our improvements.

Looking over patio improvements at the base lodge

Jeff: With all of the logistics involved in being spread out across four mountains, are you ever jealous of areas that have a single base and go up just one side of the mountain?

Mike: Being spread out can be a challenge. It means you have to sequence the crews and equipment carefully and efficiently. But part of what makes Gore so special is that we are spread out on nine sides of 4 mountains, and with that comes a unique set of challenges.


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  2. Very informative, gets me psyched for the start of ski season. Thanks!

  3. Jeff - I got some interesting photos of early season snowmaking at Gore when I hiked the Schaeffer trail yesterday:

    More Gore!...Gore Mountain - 12/2/11

  4. Fun video of the Gore Mountain snowmaking crew at work this winter, courtesy of 4 E.W.D. Productions:
    Gore Snowmaking Documentary