A-Basin snowmaking efforts on track | SummitDaily.com

A-Basin snowmaking efforts on track

ARAPAHOE BASIN – Arapahoe Basin Ski Area is getting enough snow that it’s complicating the installation of their first snowmaking system.

It’s the kind of irony at which Alan Henceroth, chief of mountain operations, is happy to laugh. The ski area reports it has received two feet of snow this month – more than the total that fell in April and May combined.

Saturday, snowmaking crews were working amid the precipitation to make the final connections on the water-pumping-and-freezing system.

“It’s been inconvenient,” Henceroth said, adding that two, four-wheel-drive work vehicles slid off one of the mountain’s ice-packed roads Friday. “But it’s not that inconvenient. We’ll take any snow we can get.”

A-Basin, the country’s highest ski area, has relied on Mother Nature’s snow generosity since opening in 1946. Henceroth said the snowmaking system should allow them to open by Thanksgiving this year, and to stay open consistently until July 4. Last year, the ski area opened in mid-December.

The snowmaking system gained final approval from the Army Corps of Engineers in March after seven years of applications. Environmental groups resisted the proposal. Colorado Wild and Trout Unlimited filed a lawsuit with the Colorado Water Board after the agency approved A-Basin’s request to withdraw water from the Snake River. The lawsuit claimed snowmaking operations would exacerbate existing problems with heavy metal contamination from old mines.

Henceroth said, in some ways, A-Basin’s snowmaking system is more environmentally friendly than other ski areas’ systems. The snowmaking jets are airless – older systems use compressed air, requiring oil-filled, noisy air compressors. Airless systems use hydraulic pressure to force water through a system of tiny holes to compress the moisture and crystallize it.

“And for the skiers who love to hit the areas of Pali or the East Wall, that won’t change,” Henceroth said. “We’ll really be focusing it on the core area.”

A-Basin averages about 360 inches of snow each year. Only 170 inches fell on the ski area last year.

Snowmaking and landslides

Saturday, a group of scientists from the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting in Denver stopped at Arapahoe Basin as part of a tour. The group visited the ski area to study and discuss the factors behind a series of 1999 mud and debris slides that closed U.S. Highway 6 over Loveland Pass and left a football-field-sized mass of mud on Interstate 70 near Bakerville.

The tour contingent, consisting of geologists, hydrologists, engineers and other scientists from the United States Geologic Survey (USGS), United States Forest Service, private firms and public universities asked questions of Henceroth and Golden geologists closely studying the event.

“When those flows occurred in 1999, it spurred a lot of study,” said Jonathan Godt with the Landslide Hazards Program at the Golden labs of the USGS. “We’d been working on the I-70 corridor since 1994, but this got everyone’s attention.”

The earth scientists are studying rain patterns and sediment records in an effort to understand and describe conditions that produce such slides. Godt said the knowledge probably won’t help predict slides to warn motorists on the highway, however, because they happen so quickly.

Henceroth said the slides caused a variety of damage to A-Basin, including creating concerns for snowmaking. He said he’s noticed since 1999 that the creek feeding the snowmaking guns gets muddy and cloudy faster than it used to after precipitation. The snowmaking guns require clarified water, or sediment will clog up the matrix of holes.

“We’ve had to manage to that quite a bit,” Henceroth said. “We enlarged our reservoir to 5.3 acre-feet to give enough room for that material to settle out.”

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 237, or rwilliams@summitdaily.com.

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