Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Adirondack ski areas by the numbers: Snowmaking

Snowmaking gun in operation at Gore Mountain last winter.

The Saratoga Skier and Hiker, first-hand accounts of adventures in the Adirondacks and beyond, and Gore Mountain ski blog.
Snowmaking can be a skier’s best friend, extending the season and providing good conditions when natural snow is in short supply. Early season may be the most crucial time of all, when skiing may not even be possible without snowmaking. That’s certainly been the case this year, with practically no natural snowfall to speak of yet. Here’s a quick overview of snowmaking systems at Adirondack ski areas.

Snowmaking Comparison

Air cfmWater gpmacre/ft per dayacres# of days
Gore Mountain
Killington, VT
West Mountain
Willard Mountain
Oak Mountain
Hickory Ski CenterNo snowmaking
Big TupperNo snowmaking

Snowmaking comparison fine print:
  • Air cfm = Compressed air capacity, cubic feet per minute.
  • Water gpm = Water pumping capacity, gallons per minute.
  • Acre/feet per day = Number of acres of terrain that can be covered in one foot of snow in a 24-hour period, operating under optimal conditions.
  • Acres = Ski area trail acreage with snowmaking.
  • # of days = The number of days it would take to cover the ski area's trail acreage in one foot of snow, operating under optimal conditions. Only trail acreage with snowmaking is counted. # of days = Acres divided by Acre/feet per day.

All snowmaking systems operate by forcing a mixture of water and air through a snow gun. Massive water pumps deliver water through a network of distribution pipes to slope-side snowmaking guns, and most systems require huge quantities of compressed air distributed through a second network of pipes. Beyond those basic similarities, every ski mountain’s snowmaking plant is unique, utilizing different equipment, strategies and techniques. For a behind-the-scenes tour of Gore’s and Whiteface’s snowmaking plants, click here and here.

Air temperature, humidity and wind play a critical role. Temperatures in the mid-teens or colder, with low humidity, are considered ideal snowmaking conditions. Although it is possible to make snow at higher temperatures, the quality and quantity of snow produced can be greatly diminished. In general, higher temperatures require greater quantities of compressed air, which becomes the limiting factor in snow production. In optimal conditions (low temps, low humidity), less compressed air is required and water pumping capacity becomes the limiting factor.

Snowmaking on Gore's Pine Knot trail a few days ago, December 15, 2012.

The Saratoga Skier and Hiker, first-hand accounts of adventures in the Adirondacks and beyond, and Gore Mountain ski blog.

While gross firepower (cubic feet per minute of compressed air, gallons per minute of water, acre/feet per day) is important, a better measure of the effectiveness of a ski area’s snowmaking plant is its size relative to the trail acreage covered by snowmaking. One gauge of effectiveness is the number of days it takes to cover a ski area’s snowmaking trails in a foot of snow, under optimal conditions. That result is shown in the chart above as “# of days.” 7 to 10 days is generally considered a very good result for large northeastern U.S. ski areas. Note that it may take significantly longer for a ski area to actually open 100% of its snowmaking terrain, as blue and black trails require greater base depths to open (1 to 2 feet and 2 to 3+ feet, respectively) than green trails (a foot or less).

Fan gun at Whiteface, a few days before opening day in 2010.

The Saratoga Skier and Hiker, first-hand accounts of adventures in the Adirondacks and beyond, and Gore Mountain ski blog.
Killington (VT) and Hunter Mountain (Catskills) were included in the chart above for comparison purposes. Killington is widely regarded as a major Vermont ski destination with superior snowmaking capability, and Hunter Mountain bills itself as the “Snowmaking Capital of the World.” But no matter what the size of a ski area’s snowmaking plant, no snow can be produced without a sufficient window of cold temperatures. So, despite the advantage Hunter’s massive snowmaking capability in the chart above, Gore, Whiteface and Killington have all been able to deliver a greater number of open days and more available terrain to skiers so far this season due to better availability of cold temperatures: location, location, location.

Of course the hard work of snowmaking crew members also plays a huge role in snowmaking operations. These are the guys who work through darkness and cold temperatures moving equipment, positioning snow guns, adjusting the flow of water and air for optimal snow production. When you’re on the slopes this winter and you have a really great run, let one of these guys know how much you appreciate their hard work and how much enjoy the snow they made – it’ll make their day.

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