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Masks, reservations and social distancing on lifts haven’t been the strangest things about Colorado’s 2020-2021 ski season. That honor goes to the snow.

“We went from 50-degree weather a few days ago to snow. If you were at Vail or Beaver Creek [in early March], it was full-on spring skiing. Everybody’s having to deal with that constant change,” says Steve Fellman, sales manager for Michigan-based SMI Snowmakers, who lives and works out of Edwards.

Originally from Minnesota, Fellman grew up skiing at that state’s Wild Mountain and began making snow for the resort when he was seventeen. After studying resort-area management at Gogebic Community College in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he went to work at Vail in 1998, on the famous one-year plan that often turns into a career.

“There’s been a lot of weird weather patterns happening lately,” Fellman says. “Windows are getting a lot tighter for snowmaking, so you have to be more efficient.”

Entering this year’s winter sports season, Colorado’s snowpack — a vital water reservoir — was only 75 percent of average SWE, or snow water equivalent. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-funded regional Western Water Assessment, January marked the second-worst start to a water year since 2000. Half of the state remained in extreme or exceptional drought conditions through February.

Then the March 13-14 storm gave Denver its fourth-greatest snowstorm, knocking the 1982 Christmas Eve blizzard down to fifth. While March snows improved snowpack across the state, allowing some resorts to remain open longer in April, without snowmaking, many wouldn’t even have started their seasons until early this year.

Mountains from Howelsen Hill to Keystone began making snow in October, as soon as the evening temperatures dropped below freezing. Making snow early increases the chances of it lasting through the ever-increasing warm spells of November and creates a solid base for the natural snow to build on.

“Back in the good old days, the locals would all drive up to the pass and ski on the pass until there was enough snow to go down to Howelsen Hill,” says Brad Setter, Howelsen Hill and Rodeo Manager. The ski area, which opened in Steamboat Springs in 1915, remains America’s oldest continuously operating ski hill. “I’m sure that worked out great for them back in the old days, and I’m sure there was a lot more consistent snow down in the valley come late November, early December — but on a year we saw like this year, they wouldn’t have been skiing at all until mid-January if we didn’t have snowmaking.”

A row of snow guns gleam at Echo Mountain.EXPAND

A row of snow guns gleam at Echo Mountain.

Amanda Pampuro

While garage engineers have been playing around with snow machines since the 1950s, Colorado resorts really began investing in snow machines and buying water rights to keep those machines stocked after the 1976-’77 season.

Duane Vandenbusche, professor of history at Western Colorado University, recalls that time as “the Winter of No.”

“I remember them hiring people with shovels to shovel snow out of the trees and onto the runs,” says Vandenbusche, who began teaching at the university in 1962 and has been skiing just as long. “The reservoir that year was a glass of ice, and I remember going out with my hockey stick and skating on it. We had very little snow until February the 24th.”

That was the day Vandenbusche finally rode Jokerville at Crested Butte.

“The drought that we had in 1976-’77 would make this look like a big snow year,” he says, laughing. “It was far, far worse than this was. This has been not a great snow year, but we’re still at about 80 or 85 percent of normal snowpack, and back then, I don’t even think we hit 50 percent.”

In nature, snow falls when there’s enough water in the clouds to make precipitation and it’s cold enough to freeze the water from cloud to ground. Water molecules collect on dust particles or pollen in the air to form intricate ice crystals.

Using the same laws of physics, a snow machine separates water into tiny particles, cools them to freezing temperatures, and then nucleates ice crystals.

“Don’t call it artificial snow,” says Taylor Ogilvie, chief executive officer of TechnoAlpin, a company that markets snowmaking equipment. “It’s real snow. It’s machine-made, yes, but it’s still real.”

Some snowmakers have access to particle-rich mineral water while others employ SnoMax, a product that enhances the number of nucleation sites by mixing protein from the bacteria Pseudomonas syringae into the water. Every snowflake forms around a particle, so increasing the number of nucleation sites yields better output.

Echo Mountain uses SnoMax, a type of protein, to increase snow yield.EXPAND

Echo Mountain uses SnoMax, a type of protein, to increase snow yield.

Amanda Pampuro

The first snow machines hooked air compressors up to diesel generators and used the force of the air to separate water molecules. Although many machines now run on electricity, that air-water design is still in use. Modern airless snow guns or fan guns inject a stream of air and water into a ring of water nozzles, then push the mix out with a fan.

Whether the snow is coming from the clouds or a machine, the wet-bulb temperature — a measurement combining air temperature with moisture — must be below freezing or the snow will melt. For decades, resorts employed large teams of seasonal workers to wait for the right conditions, then zip around the mountain on snowmobiles to manually turn on snow guns. They’d adjust the air and water output on each device to make the right kind of snow for the conditions and terrain.

“Snowmaking in the early days was a super physical industry, like working on an oil rig, with crazy amounts of time outside in the snow and the cold,” recalls snow pro Mark Eldring, a winch-cat operator at Loveland known on the mountain as “Straighty 180.”

“Your results sometimes don’t show for the amount of effort you’ve put in,” Eldring explains. “If you’re working your butt off and you have, like, one snow gun out of twenty or thirty that’s making wet snow, and you put a big ice patch on your ski trail just in one spot, everyone who skis that trail the next day will talk about that ice.”

Variables like ambient air temperature and humidity, as well as the temperature and pressure of the water and air in the machine, shape the snow that falls.

“With the older machines, you’re adjusting the mix of air and water manually,” Ogilvie says. “The science is taking some of the guesswork out of the art of going out and standing in your stream of snow and looking for bounce off your jacket, then adjusting the air or water to get better bounce.”

Top-of-the-line snow machines like the TechnoAlpin TR10 or SMI Snowmaker’s Super Puma eliminate the need for the standby snowmobile cavalry; their onboard weather stations automatically turn on snow when conditions are right. In addition to using less power, today’s snowmaking machines require less water than their pre decessors, which is important in a state where water is limited.

Covering a space the size of a football field with six inches of snow requires more than 150,000 gallons of water; resorts usually build a base of 18 inches across acres of trail. In a single season, a resort can use anywhere from 90 to 240 million gallons of water to make snow. Powerful water pumps feed an underground network of pipes connecting the water reservoir to the machines.

“Snowmaking is a really critical part of our operation, particularly being this close to the Front Range.”

Many snowmakers describe their practice as water storage rather than usage, a claim supported by a 1990 study from the Journal of the American Water Resources Association estimating that evaporative water loss during snowmaking ranges from 7 to 33 percent, leaving anywhere from 67 to 93 percent of water used in snowmaking to return to the watershed.

“Snowmaking is really creating frozen reservoirs on the mountain,” Ogilvie says. “It’s not like the water is disappearing from the watershed. You’re storing the water, helping the local recreation economy and people who go and have a great time in the mountains, and then the water ends up back in the stream in the spring.”

Besides providing insurance against bad snow years, snowmaking can give resorts predictable opening and closing dates and consistent conditions throughout the season. Advancements in automation and weather data gathering are coming to the market just as resorts — and their customers — crave certainty in an uncertain climate.

“With climate change that we’re in right now and ski seasons getting a little shorter every year, there’s a greater possibility now of having less snow,” Vandenbusche continues. “There’s going to be an increased emphasis on snowmaking in the future, and that, of course, is providing you have enough water.”

John Lock of Echo's Ski Patrol compares the snowmaking equipment to a fire suppression system.EXPAND

John Lock of Echo’s Ski Patrol compares the snowmaking equipment to a fire suppression system.

Amanda Pampuro

In a given winter, Howelsen Hill pumps 13 to 17 million gallons of water out of the Yampa River to cover 120 acres of trails and build its jump complex, freestyle courses and snowboard banks.

“We actually fired up a little bit in January and made some more snow because we were starting to get dirt spots on the alpine portion of the hill,” says Howelsen Hill manager Setter. “It’s gotten significantly better, but it was definitely trending toward the worst winter I’ve seen, snowfall-wise.”

Growing up in Minnesota, Setter joined the ski club in middle school and soon learned to love “any method of sliding on snow.” He isn’t a racer, but he says he loves the steep run down the iconic face of Howelsen Hill on a powder day. Now in his eighth season of management, Setter worked his way up through snowmaking, lift operations and maintenance.

This year Howelsen Hill unveiled significant snowmaking upgrades, replacing welded steel water pipes with Austrian-made ductile iron and firing up its first automated snow gun — an SMI Super Puma.

Since it began manufacturing snow in the early 1990s with an air-water system running on generators, the area has slowly made upgrades, still using nine twenty-year-old SMI Super Polecats.

Setter estimates that Howelsen Hill spent twelve to fourteen more days making snow this winter than in previous years. The community-owned recreation area also started making snow during October cold spells before hiring all of its seasonal workers, so that they could get right to work.

“We got a little pushback here this fall from making snow in October: ‘Why are you making snow so early? It’s just gonna melt,’” Setter recalls. “Locals are just worried that we’re being inefficient. We work for the City of Steamboat Springs, so everything that goes into it is public money, and we do run a deficit, so there’s a lot of interest in how we do things and why we do things.”

“The long-term prognosis, it’s not great. Enjoy every ski day while you can.”

In a changing climate, efficient snowmaking is important to maximize limited resources, but “the long-term prognosis, it’s not great,” Setter adds. “Enjoy every ski day while you can.”

Without snowmaking, Echo Mountain might not have opened at all this year.

“Snowmaking is a really critical part of our operation, particularly being this close to the Front Range,” says Frederick Klaas, who has managed Echo Mountain for five seasons.

Minneapolis investor and University of Denver graduate Peter Burwell bought Echo Mountain in 2016 for $4 million and reopened it to the public.

While the location, thirty minutes from Denver, is convenient, it also makes snow a constant challenge, with winter temperatures often in the 40s.

Echo didn’t open its first run until December, and it continued to make snow through February. When weather forecasts predicted the biggest snow of the season on March 13, Echo Mountain canceled its blackout weekend and invited season-pass holders to enjoy spring-break champagne powder. The celebration didn’t last long: The deluge of 34 inches of snow rendered the roads impassable through March 14.

Looking to the future, Klaas says it makes sense for what are now called winter sports to just happen in the spring.

“Right now, a lot of people start thinking skiing and getting excited about it in November and December, and yet some of Colorado’s best snow comes in March and in April,” he notes. “I think there could be a little bit of shifting in demand and behavior with the shifting weather patterns.”

Even though Echo Mountain makes a significant portion of its snow, Klaas says he will always enjoy a good, natural blizzard.

“It’s always great to receive some natural snow. It’s obviously just beautiful. There’s something really special about watching it fall and cover everything,” he explains. “We really view it as a partnership between us and Mother Nature.”

Some Colorado resorts still rely 100 percent on Mother Nature. Ski Cooper near Leadville doesn’t own a single snow gun. Cooper opened on December 9 and is currently slated to remain open through April 25.

Located on top of the Continental Divide near Mount Elbert and Mount Massive, Cooper has its origins in the U.S. Army’s 1942 camp in Pando, where the 10th Mountain Division ski troopers trained.

“The Army selected the site because of the availability of rail transportation, its rugged mountainous terrain, and a 250-inch average annual snowfall, which assured a six-month-long ski training season at the nearby, 11,700-foot-high Cooper Hill,” explains Cooper’s website.

“Regarding snowfall, it has always been and will always be erratic,” says Dan Torsell, Cooper’s president and general manager. “It is, after all, the weather.”

While Cooper managers discuss snowmaking now and then, the cost of building the infrastructure to support and maintain snow machines doesn’t make sense for the resort, Torsell says. “In our case, the return on investment is unfavorable given up-front costs combined with operational costs in a situation that hasn’t supported the true need for the expense,” he notes. “Additionally, I would hate to diminish the quality of our snow.”

Natural snow is much more forgiving, he says: “I spent a great deal of my career dealing with and skiing on man-made snow, and in my opinion there is no comparison, due to differences in water content [and] density.”

While Cooper celebrates its snow, fifty miles up Route 91, Keystone is celebrating its machines.

Although it gets an annual average of 235 inches of snow, Keystone is heavily investing in its snowmaking factory. In 2019, the resort installed 53 automated fan guns, 22 mobile fan guns, 29 tower-mounted fan guns, two arm-mounted fan guns, ten air/water tower guns, more than two miles of pipe and nearly fifteen miles of electrical cable.

“I am actually really hopeful because of the innovation environmental changes have brought to the snowmaking industry,” says Chris Ingham, Keystone’s director of mountain operations. Keystone is part of the global Vail Resorts chain, which generates upwards of $1.9 billion in revenue annually and aims to be carbon-neutral by 2030.

“Automation and low-energy equipment have been born out of some of the significant environmental changes we have already experienced,” Ingham says. “Net positive results from an efficiency perspective, as well as being generally more environmentally responsible.”

While he relies on man-made equipment, Ingham also looks to nature. “I watch the bee population the summer leading up to snowmaking season,” he explains. “Some say that a big bee population means a big snow year ahead.”

Fresh snow sits piled on top of manmade snow at Echo Mountain on March 21.EXPAND

Fresh snow sits piled on top of manmade snow at Echo Mountain on March 21.

Amanda Pampuro

And there could be many more big years ahead for Colorado’s resorts. For his master’s thesis, University of Wyoming student Christian Philipp Lackner developed models analyzing potential impacts of climate change on the Rocky Mountain ski industry over the next thirty years. The Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology published the study in March. The projections for Colorado are somewhat hopeful.

“In general, lower elevations and latitudes will be more impacted by climate change. So if you look at Colorado where elevations are really high, the ski industry will be less impacted,” Lackner explains. Consequently, “the demand in Colorado might also increase substantially, at least in the near future.”

If it does, so will the demand for consistent snow — and people who know how to make it.

While today’s automated snow guns require less human skill to operate, those who continue to work the mountain still find beauty in making and shaping the snow as they ready the slopes for early riders.

Originally from Mount Maunganui, New Zealand, Mark Eldring imagined he might become a golf pro or transition into a career selling clubs, but he always loved surfing and quickly fell in love with snowboarding. In 2005, he took a job as a lift operator at Perisher Ski Resort in Perisher Valley, Australia; when a co-worker saw how serious he was, she slapped him with the “Straighty 180” nickname.

Recognizing his drive, a manager sent Eldring to shadow the snowmakers. He then jumped to Sun Valley Resort in Idaho, and in Vancouver, Canada, helped build the men’s downhill course for the 2010 Olympics. In 2014, he made snow for the Sochi Olympics in Russia. “Even though I’m a snowboarder, I love making the men’s downhill ski race course,” says Eldring, who ultimately landed at Loveland.

“My favorite thing is to go into a trail that may have had two weeks of free skiing on it, where we’ve had some snowfall, but the moguls end up being like four feet high, and then in between the moguls, it’s down to the dirt,” he continues. “I go in on a steep terrain that’s super soft, and I’ve got to basically flatten everything, plus move the snow back uphill, then shape the breakover. It’s almost like going in with a blank canvas, and then, by the time I’m done and finished grooming, it’s like a piece of artwork.”

For him, it’s not a matter of man versus nature, but man working within nature.

“Ultimately, why I love snowmaking is because you’re constantly thinking on your toes,” concludes Eldring. “You’re totally governed by Mother Nature, so you don’t have a say in the argument.”

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