TAHOE/TRUCKEE — When Mother Nature is stingy with the snow, Tahoe ski resorts can turn to their backup plan. Using water and compressed air, local resorts create their own snow-covered runs to ensure winter success.
“Snowmaking is a form of an insurance policy,” explains Amelia Richmond, senior public relations manager for Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows.
It ensures that resorts can open in time for the holiday season — be it Thanksgiving or Christmas — fill in areas with subpar snow coverage and provide good skiing and riding until the end of the season.
“It’s a guest service piece,” said Jim Larmore, director of mountain operations for Northstar California. “It’s a piece we provide our guests so they can make planned vacations and provide a better ski experience than if they just relied on Mother Nature’s natural snow.”
Yet to make snow, resorts still rely on Mother Nature — to a degree.
THE ‘ART AND SCIENCE’ OF SNOWMAKING
To make snow, resorts need freezing temperatures and low relative humidity.
“The humidity is huge — probably the single biggest factor,” said Dave Hahl, snowmaking and grooming manager of Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe.
He added that low humidity allows the atmosphere to be saturated with water to create “that much more snow.” If humidity is high, however, the atmosphere is too saturated to produce significant amounts of snow.
Secondary snowmaking factors are winds and cloud-cover.
“When you’re making snow in the Sierra, you’ve got to catch every window you can,” said Jack Coughlin, slope maintenance manager for Diamond Peak. “I used to make snow back East, and back East, you know you can make snow four, five days a week.
“Here, when it’s cold, you grab it, and then you’re going to get the beautiful warm weather after that.”
When conditions are right, resorts pump water — stored in ponds, reservoirs or other sources — through pumphouses, up pipes running up the mountain to specific snow guns. Depending on the guns in a resort’s fleet, compressed air must also be pumped to the gun.
Together — air and water — under the right conditions, form snow.
“You don’t want to pick it up and squeeze it, and you’ve got slush coming out,” explained Coughlin, who’s looking for a hard snowball at the end of the process. “So you really have to pay attention to what you’re doing.”
Once made, the snow is left to cure, perking out some of the excess water, before groomers move and flatten the snow into a favorable skiing and riding surface.
“(Making snow) it’s a science and an art,” Hahl said. “… The science part of it, it’s the technology — the technology improves like anything else. Yet it still takes the guy on the ground to get it right. You can’t overestimate the human link.”
HOW SNOWMAKING SAVED WINTER BUSINESS
With two consecutive mild winters at Lake Tahoe, resorts have had to heavily rely on their snowmaking systems.
According to Squaw Valley’s snowfall tracker, it snowed 183 inches at 6,200 feet and 326 inches at 8,200 feet in 2012-13. For 2011-12, it snowed 182.5 inches and 355 inches, respectively.
The average snowfall for the Lake Tahoe region is 430 inches.
“Two years ago when there was a complete lack of snow, we still did great business through the Christmas period with snowmaking,” Hahl said. “… (People are) just realizing that even if there hasn’t been many natural storms, they can still book a vacation and still come up and get good skiing.”
Being a winter destination spot, resort success is closely tied to community success.
“Particularly in the lean years, if we didn’t have snowmaking, people would’t be coming,” Coughlin said. “You’ve got to have those resorts open. (For) the local business, the restaurants, it’s devastating when you have a bad winter.”
Yet the ability to make snow when Mother Nature fails to comes at a cost.
COST OF DOING BUSINESS
“It’s extremely expensive to make snow,” Coughlin said. “… We’re running up electric bills running our water pumps and running out air compressors.”
When asked how much it costs to make snow, the consensus was it varies, based on weather conditions and equipment.
In an effort to be more cost-efficient, Larmore said Northstar has been investing in lower energy-consuming guns.
“(They) allow us to make more snow with less energy, which is really the big story,” he said.
For the past two years, significant investments in Squaw’s and Alpine’s snowmaking systems have been made. In 2012, $2.6 million was invested in Squaw’s system, with $600,000 at Alpine, Richmond said. In 2013, a total of $2 million was invested into both resorts’ systems.
These funds went to fully automating both resort systems, piping work at Squaw to allow water to flow up and down the mountain and the purchase of new, low-energy guns — all to increase the efficiency of the system.
“The game in snowmaking now is everybody’s got their systems at the size they more or less need,” Couglin said. “Now, it’s how can we do it less expensively? Where can we find more energy-efficient ways to do it?”
Larmore said even though the money-saving aspect is important, it’s not the driving force behind updates to Northstar’s system.
Rather, as Richmond agrees, it’s all about the guest and the guest experience.
“At the end of the day, it gets you out on the mountain, and you’re able to pursue the sports that you love,” she said.