Leader of Loveland Ski Area’s snowmaking team turns job into a winter-chasing way of life
January 22, 2015
Mark Eldring has experienced one summer in the last nine years.
The 32-year-old Loveland Ski Area snowmaker and groomer found a way to make a career out of shaping the slopes, and for nearly a decade, he has traveled around the world chasing the snow.
Originally from Mount Maunganui, a coastal town on the north island of New Zealand, Eldring is part of a small crew of Kiwis and Aussies contracted by Loveland for the last few years. The group works nearly nonstop to get the resort open as fast as possible.
Snowmaking allows Eldring to spend almost all his time, all year long, on snow-covered mountains, something that might entice avid skiers and snowboarders.
But snowmaking isn't for everyone.
ON THE JOB
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Snowmakers must enjoy mechanics and thrive, or at least survive, in inclement weather.
They work on mountaintops in frigid temperatures and gusting winds, and they operate heavy machinery on changing high-altitude terrain with sometimes little to no visibility.
Eldring explained how he received stitches from a couple of on-the-job accidents and described what it's like to work with hoses with air pressure at 100 psi and water pressure at 600 psi.
"You're standing basically under a frozen shower," he said.
Equipment is always bursting and breaking, he said, and a pipe bursting at full pressure could kill if a person was hit in the head.
The job's physical demands keep him in shape, he said, calling the snowmaking season his 10-week boot camp. "The amount of food we eat is absurd."
Loveland uses his team in the annual race to be the first Colorado ski area to open, he said, because where they're from the temperature rarely drops below 20 degrees. The guys know tricks that produce more and better snow in warm weather.
Plus this year, each of the seven snowmakers had at least five years of snowmaking experience.
So few people make snow at such a high level, he said, that talk within the tight community leads to work opportunities. He can't remember his last job interview.
In his fourth season at Loveland this winter, Eldring managed the crew and their vehicles and gear, taking on more communication and paperwork. He would go to sleep around 2 a.m. and wake up by 8 or 9 a.m. to talk to the heads of mountain operations and trail maintenance.
The three of them would decide how to adjust and move the ski area's 42 guns and when to open runs. Eldring kept a daily log for the ski area and included what equipment needed maintenance and how safety procedures could be improved.
When the crew first arrives, the snowmakers work 10- to 14-hour shifts for two weeks without a day off. That's what it takes, Eldring said, and in the early season they're not missing out on that much great snow anyway.
Then three of the snowmakers work 12-hour day shifts, three work 12-hour nights and one fills in where needed.
Eldring enjoys working long hours and then having larger blocks of time off. Once snowmaking finishes and he becomes a groomer, he works four night shifts with a three-day weekend. Two weekends ago, he snowboarded at four resorts in three days.
Working for 10 to 11 months straight helps him justify taking off the entire month of April every year. He usually goes surfing in Costa Rica.
BECOMING ONE OF THE BEST
Eldring grew up thinking he would become a professional golfer or earn a degree in sports medicine.
He ended up working sales for a golf club company in New Zealand, and in a few years he had worked his way up and transferred to Australia. But he didn't like sales.
He called it quits for the winter, and at 22 he became a lift operator at Perisher, known as the largest ski resort in the southern hemisphere.
Eldring fell in love with snowboarding, but he said lifty life didn't suit his career-oriented, driven personality. His boss suggested snowmaking, so he worked one last summer with the golf company and then tried snowmaking the next winter.
The tight-knit group of snowmakers grew up fishing, camping and surfing, like him.
"It felt like it was my family," he said.
Soon he skipped spring, summer and fall to work in the U.S. at Sun Valley in Idaho.
There he learned he could stay longer at the resort if he became a groomer when snowmaking ended.
Since then, he has worked 18 back-to-back winter seasons in Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.
Eldring hasn't lived in the same place for more than four months in the last five years. He often jumps between jobs on different continents with 48 hours or fewer in between, and he stores belongings in at least three countries.
When he needs to pack for his next job, he can fit his life into three bags in a couple hours.
"The worst part of it is packing," he said.
CREATING RACE COURSES
At Coronet Peak in New Zealand, where the U.S. ski team trains in the northern hemisphere's summer, Eldring gained experience creating ski race courses.
That led to stints at the last two winter Olympics.
Eldring spent weeks in Vancouver and Sochi for the two years before each Olympic Games as well as right before and during the competitions.
He confirmed reports of high security, questionable water quality and hastily built housing in Sochi and said he was thankful for the lack of snow there. The racers want hard surfaces, so the courses are entirely manmade, he said. "The snow that falls on it, we normally just push it off."
LIVING ON THE OTHER SIDE
In 2009, Eldring spent his only full summer in nine years working for a golf course near Whistler, in British Columbia.
He spends a couple of weeks with family in New Zealand around Christmas, at the height of summer there, but the short trip feels like a tease. Eldring said he longs for a summer and plans to make one happen this year.
"Otherwise I'm going to be so grumpy and a Grinch," he said. "I miss summer more than I could tell you in words right now."
He said he's aggressively pursuing a dream of buying a cabin and some dogs and working year-round at one resort.
That one resort could be Loveland, he said, because he loves creating the race courses for its growing ski club. Plus, Loveland's snowmaking is much more hands-on than at ski areas that have stationary guns and automated systems. He enjoys seeing the results of small manual adjustments.
Eldring, who lives in Summit Cove, said he loves living in Summit County. The ski industry in Colorado is bigger and better than New Zealand's, and the mountain landscapes and people are similar.
"Colorado is a bigger New Zealand," he said. "I feel so at home here."
But he misses family and friends on the other side of the world.
"In the early days I remember it used to be really, really tough," he said. "I used to get really homesick."
As technology changed, it became easier to keep in contact. The time difference makes his night shifts convenient for calling home.
Eldring struggled this Christmas, though. He shared a house with his six crewmembers and they all left in mid-December. Then during the holiday he thought of his large family feasting and enjoying time together. He coped by calling his parents and listening to New Zealand music.
Eldring, the middle child between two sisters, said his family has been supportive of his snowmaking. At first, his parents helped him financially when money was tight between jobs. Now he's helping them, he said.
His lifestyle has also tested serious romantic relationships over the years.
"It's always gotten broken down by the fact that I was this gypsy, nomadic spirit, and they wanted to settle down," he said.
But Eldring wouldn't change a thing. He enjoys putting smiles on the faces of skiers, who often don't realize the behind-the-scenes work that shapes their day on the mountain. And he likes the alone time, sitting in his cat in the middle of a peaceful night.
He often reflects on how fortunate he's been, he said. He never thought he could travel making snow.
"Looking back on it, it's been an incredible trip," he said. "If I was to die right now by walking outside and getting hit by a bus, I would be stoked."
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