How high-tech snowmaking has revolutionized how we ski—and how far the technology has come
When Keystone first tried its hand at making snow, ski season in Summit County was forever changed. Since then, all other Summit County ski areas — Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, Breckenridge Ski Resort and Copper Mountain Resort — have all put in their own snowmaking systems in an effort to secure a solid snow base and extend their ski seasons. The trends in snowmaking have been to implement the most efficient systems possible and to automate systems.
This year, Keystone upped the competition by replacing 50 of its manual or semiautomatic snow guns with new, high-efficiency and fully automatic snow guns. These machines use individual weather systems, which automatically activate snowmaking when weather conditions permit.
The weather system automation allows the resort to take full advantage of the shorter, early season weather windows that are favorable for snowmaking. Chris Ingham, director of mountain operations at Keystone, explained that the new machines increase the rate of conversion from water to snow without requiring an increase in water.
“The motivation for putting in these new snow guns was to get us open as early as possible to get a better value for our early season Epic passholders,” Ingham said.
The 2019-20 season was unique in that Keystone and A-Basin were neck and neck in the race to open for the first time in years. Keystone hasn’t competed with high-elevation rivals A-Basin and Loveland Ski Area for first to open since 2001. Both Keystone and A-Basin officially began snowmaking Oct. 2. Loveland and Copper Mountain weren’t far behind and started up their snow guns shortly thereafter. Then, A-Basin and Keystone opened on the same weekend, with A-Basin opening Oct. 11 and Keystone opening Oct. 12. These were both some of the earliest openings in years.
TechnoAlpin, the company that produced Keystone’s high-efficiency snow guns, works to increase snowmaking efficiency by using technology to produce more snow with less water, according to service manager Todd Green. Green has been working in the ski industry for 40 years and said the biggest change he’s seen over the years is the introduction of automation. He attested that Keystone was the first ski resort in the state to have an automated system.
As far as the trends in snowmaking moving forward, Green said manufacturers are simply continuing to improve the efficiency of the snowmaking machines.
“Snowmaking is a heat removal process. You’re taking the heat out of the water so it can freeze,” Green said.
Green said that while the physics of snowmaking are quite simple, the process can get very high-tech as manufacturers work to improve the aerodynamics of the process. Another big factor Green mentioned is working to improve performance of snow guns at marginal temperatures: how the machines strive to make more snow and better quality snow at warmer temperatures. He said when it’s cold enough, even the most low-tech machines can make decent snow.
“Colder temps increase efficiency. When it’s cold, you can move more water through the snow gun,” Green said.
Green added that the more water that can be moved through a snow gun, the more efficient the snow gun is.
“Improving efficiency is going to be the primary motivator for all of the major manufacturers as we move forward,” Ingham said.
A-Basin has historically had the upper hand when it comes to early snow with a summit elevation of 13,050 feet.
“Clearly we have advantages to making more snow,” Lifts and Slopes Maintenance Director Louis Skowyra said. “We are a little higher than everyone else. We have a bigger window. You can dump all the money in the world into these systems, and at the end of the day, it has got to be cold.” Referring to A-Basin as the “new kid on the block,” Skowyra pointed out that A-Basin has been making snow for just under 20 years. By comparison, Keystone implemented its snowmaking system more than 30 years ago. He said A-Basin has a few automated snow guns, but that other ski areas have a lot more. Yet, Skowyra said despite a more simple system, A-Basin is frequently the first ski area to open in the state since putting in the snowmaking system.
In addition to the snow guns themselves, a factor of snowmaking efficiency is the strategy a resort uses to focus its snowmaking system.
“To get open, we focus on High Noon. We throw all our eggs into one basket. We put all our guns on that trail,” Skowyra said. “If we’re blowing snow around the clock, we can open in a few days.”
Skowyra pointed out that Keystone and Loveland have more acerage to cover in order to open a top-to-bottom run, giving A-Basin another advantage. He also highlighted the advantages of snowmaking near the end of the season.
In 2019, A-Basin stayed open through the Fourth of July, and Skowyra said that by this time, they were down to the snowmaking corridor, and this base is part of what allowed the ski area to stay open so late in the season.
While the exact date Keystone started making snow is unknown, it is known that Bill LeClair, local snowmaking legend, came to Keystone in 1986. He noted they had been making snow for a few years before he came. LeClair started out making snow in New Hampshire in 1984 before coming to Keystone, where he stayed for almost 30 years. Wanting a change, and living three houses down from A-Basin Chief Operating Officer Alan Henceroth, LeClair was talked into hopping over to A-Basin, which is where he’s making snow for his third year.
“It’s just the satisfaction of putting out a good product, and once it gets pushed out by the snowcats, it’s almost like you’re creating a masterpiece,” LeClair said when asked why he has dedicated his life to snowmaking.
LeClair said he thrives on the satisfaction of getting people excited about the start of the season.
“The comradery is really important with the team. You’re creating a product when Mother Nature can’t help out,” LeClair said.
When it comes to changes LeClair has seen in his more than 30-year snowmaking career, he said the biggest change he’s witnessed is the advancements in automation. He said that while automation is a big investment for the ski areas, the return on investment is worth it.
“Back when I first started, the pumps and compressors were controlled by computer software, but now lots of ski areas, they have guns with onboard sensors that have weather systems,” LeClair said. “You can change how much water you’re putting through the guns. … It’s pretty sophisticated.”
LeClair said that while his job isn’t as hands-on as it used to be, this doesn’t mean he’s taking it easy.
“There’s no downtime in snowmaking anymore. Summertime is almost busier than wintertime because you have all the capital projects going on,” LeClair said.
Summer is busy for snowmakers because there is equipment to maintain, a pipeline to assemble, snow guns to upgrade and the general business that comes with getting a ski area ready for the season.
There’s no question that snowmaking has lengthened the ski season by months, in some cases, but as for the process snowmaking itself, what’s changed is how ski areas operate snow guns, not how they make snow. The process is scientifically simple — you freeze water to make snow. But when you go to look inside the control room that operates the machines, things seem a lot more complicated. So, will these complicated machines end up replacing the people on the mountain? Green says no way.
According to Green, while the industry will continue to move forward with automation, it is going to make the process more efficient and make the snowmakers’ jobs easier, but it won’t take them out of the equation. People still need to be on the mountain checking snow quality, operating systems and making sure they’re working properly.
Snowmaking will continue to progress in efficiency, but at the end of the day, the temperatures outside and that natural white fluff is all in the hands of Mother Nature.
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