Making snow | Changing the business of winter

Lake Tahoe is famous for giving skiers and riders more than 300 days of sunshine and more than 400 inches of snowfall, but sometimes there have been winters when all skiers and riders want is more snow. Luckily the 2015-16 winter season dumped enough snow in the region, but the four years before that were some rough seasons.

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A snow gun pumps out freezing water at Diamond Peak. | Kayla Anderson

The evolution of snowmaking has been a game changer for Tahoe resorts by giving them more control, better on-snow experiences for their guests and a full winter season of snow without being solely dependent on Mother Nature. If relying on Mother Nature alone, Tahoe resorts may not be able to open until early to mid-December and it’s all up to the weather on how long they can stay open.

The evolution of snowmaking has been a game changer for Tahoe resorts by giving them more control, better on-snow experiences for their guests and a full winter season of snow without being solely dependent on Mother Nature.

As snowmaking systems become more efficient, Tahoe resorts open earlier each year (depending on the cold temperatures), which translates to more skier days for snow enthusiasts. In the past, an average ski resort season was mid-December through mid-April but now some resorts can be open from mid-November through mid-May. This is a full two-month extension largely due to snowmaking.

Making snow since the 1930s
The first snowmaking system in North America came in 1934 from an idea to use shaved ice to create competition ski jumps, according to the the New England Ski Museum.

In 1949, a company called Tey took a snowmaking prototype to Mohawk Mountain in Connecticut to try to create a ski slope for the masses. Soon after, Larchmont Farms Company adapted irrigation nozzles that released live steam and water to protect crops from frost to use in snowmaking. Larchmont has largely been credited with discovering how to manufacture snow.

Throughout the 1950s, Larchmont snowmaking systems were integrated into mountain operations of ski resorts on the East Coast and soon made its way west. In 1963, Killington Ski Resort in Colorado installed a Larchmont system but then soon upgraded to Ratnik Industries freeze-proof snowmaking system in 1964. As snowmaking systems continued to improve and evolve, SMI and Hedco came on the market with its airless snowmakers.

In 1966, Diamond Peak was the first ski resort in Lake Tahoe to install snowmaking on its mountain and then in the late 1970s other Tahoe resorts followed. By the early 1980s, ski resorts across the country started investing in snowmaking in an effort to provide a consistent winter recreational product.

Leading the way in Tahoe
Fifty years ago, Diamond Peak founder Art Wood committed $2 million to build a ski area with equipment to make snow as an insurance policy against Mother Nature (or to enhance what she already provided). Bringing on Ratniks and then expanding its fleet to include HKD Snowmakers, SMI Pumas and SMI Super Wizards, Diamond Peak can cover 75 percent of developed terrain in manmade snow. Their innovation in those early years has helped drive revenue in low-snow seasons.

“Ski resorts would not be able to exist the way they did back then without the snowmaking capabilities we have now,” says Diamond Peak general manager Mike Bandelin. He remembers 1977 as being a particularly bad snow season in Lake Tahoe and that’s when other ski areas started looking at snowmaking more seriously.

Bragging rights
With the highest base altitude in Lake Tahoe at 8,260 feet and its north-facing runs, Mt. Rose has been able to get away with an abundance of natural snow for most of its history (no doubt saving money on not needing artificial snow). But in one mid-1990s season when the snow came rather late, Mt. Rose took the weather into its own hands by tapping into the water line to install a snowmaker on the beginner Ponderosa run.

“We had one snowmaker hooked up to the fire hydrant,” recalls Mt. Rose general manager Paul Senft.

The mountain later expanded its snowmaking on the Kit Carson Trail. Then, in the summer of 2011, Mt. Rose laid snowmaking pipe on Silver Dollar trail to allow skiers’ access to the Slide Bowl and Winters Creek Lodge.

“The second we can get a run open, we do,” says Mt. Rose marketing director Mike Pierce. “Our goal is to get the whole mountain open as quickly as possible,” he adds. Pierce says that being one of the first resorts open for the winter season inspires confidence that Mt. Rose can deliver a great product throughout the rest of the season.

“Getting open by Thanksgiving used to be a bonus, but now it’s a priority,” he says, adding that there’s heavy competition with other Lake Tahoe ski resorts to open first, Pierce says.

Investing in the future
Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows is at the tail end of its multi-year $70 million in capital improvements with $9 million in snowmaking over a span of six years.

For this season, Alpine Meadows added five HKD SV10 snowmaking guns to be able to cover the lower portion of Summit run and Squaw Valley added high-capacity snowmaking guns to be able to build better snow surfaces for Big Blue, Siberia and Headwall loading areas. With 350 snowmaking guns across both mountains, Squaw Alpine can turn on snow guns anywhere in a matter of seconds.

Snowmaking at Squaw Valley | Matt Palmer

“We can turn on the whole system at the same time, bumping up our opening day because we have that confidence to make snow whenever and wherever we want,” says Squaw Alpine public relations manager Liesl Kenney. Adding snowmaking guns to the Kangaroo area at Alpine Meadows ensures that one of their most popular beginner areas opens with plenty of snow coverage over the Thanksgiving holiday.

“Our investment in grooming and snowmaking is our commitment to our guests. We depend heavily on natural snow, but we are even less dependent on it now. Snowmaking is a guarantee to our guests that we will have snow,” says Kenney.

The 2015-16 season was one of the resort’s earliest openings (Alpine Meadows opened Nov. 12 and Squaw Valley opened Nov. 14) largely due to snowmaking. “We got a lot of snow, but snowmaking helped,” Kenney says.

“We are able to manipulate the actual quality of the snow making that wet, dense snow that’s so good to ski on,” Kenney says. “Before, you would have to know the exact temperature and wet bulb of every snow gun on the mountain, but now it’s all automated. You can get the whole mountain online within seconds and when you’re trying to get open, every second counts.”

Advantages of technology
Northstar California director of mountain operations Jim Larmore has worked in the ski industry his whole life and is passionate about snowmaking. Spending 23 years at Heavenly as its snow surfaces director and the past five years at Northstar running its mountain operations, Larmore has seen improvement in snowmaking efficiencies. Gone are the days when he walked around the mountain at night with a thermometer. Now Larmore can turn on a snow gun with the push a button from the comfort of his own home.

“In the old days everything was manual with snow pumps, compressors, laying pipe and communicating with telephones and radios compared to what it is now,” Larmore says.

He says that new technology and software systems have advanced snowmaking to create a more efficient and safer operation. Although some technical expertise is still needed (a push of a button can turn on a 750 horsepower gun), quick communication is key when you are trying to make quality snow.

“Efficiency [in snowmaking] is way up from the old days. It’s like comparing a wagon train to a car,” says Larmore. “If you have to do it manually, it takes so long. From 20 years ago to today it’s not even the same industry.”

Northstar now has the ability to make snow accessible from every chairlift and can cover up to 70 percent of its 3,910 acres of skiable terrain.

“Snowmaking helps to get open by the Christmas holiday and sustain yourself through March. Even if it doesn’t snow, we will have a great product for our guests – guaranteed,” he says.

Larmore adds that when Vail Resorts purchased Heavenly, it already had a large snowmaking system and the corporation continued to invest in upgrading snow guns and technology. Northstar sends out a snowmaking crew of 10 to 12 people per night shift and as the temperatures drop, the water consumption and workload increases.

“Heavenly and Northstar have the biggest snowmaking systems around, but at the end of the day it’s all about how many trails you have open and the quality of the snow,” he says.

Northstar communications specialist Cassandra Walker adds, “Jim will not allow opening day to happen without the experience that our skiers expect.”

All three Vail resorts in the Tahoe Sierra – Heavenly, Kirkwood and Northstar –opened for the 2016-17 season on Nov. 18.

Nothing beats being able to go outside and build a snowman, go sledding or shred in fresh powder after a snowstorm. But, unfortunately, with the unpredictability of the weather, the storms just don’t roll in when ski resorts or skiers would like them to. If a ski resort doesn’t have snowmaking, it can hurt business and tourism for the entire region.

The millions invested in snowmaking through the years allows skiers and snowboarders to enjoy perfect on-mountain conditions at the touch of a button.

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This story originally appeared in the Winter 2016-17 edition of Tahoe Powder magazine. Download the free digital issue: TheTahoeWeekly.com or issuu.com/TheTahoeWeekly
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Kayla Anderson

Kayla Anderson is a freelance writer, marketer and action sports enthusiast who has spent the last 10 years in North Lake Tahoe snowboarding, hiking and wake surfing. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Chico State University and loves being out on the lake as often as she can.