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The Art and Science of Snowmaking

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The Art and Science of Snowmaking

The Art and Science of Snowmaking

Imagine running a complex project involving heavy equipment, piping, water, and coordinating teams of people with expertise in snowmaking, grooming, and Ski Patrol. Now add in acres of varied mountain terrain, unpredictable weather patterns, and thousands of people waiting, excited to load onto the Red Lady Express Lift and carve down some of the best runs Colorado has to offer.

No pressure, right?

That is what Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s fearless snowmaking team faces every year, along with the age old questions of “when are you going to start making snow?” and “what lifts and runs are going to be ready for Opening Day?” Although we always want to answer “now” and “everything,” the complexity that goes into snowmaking is deep and CMBR is lucky to have the experts on staff who can help us understand the details and decisions of snowmaking.

Snowmaking is creating winter on the mountain (to ideally supplement natural snowfall), with experts behind the scenes making crucial decisions armed with years of experience covering any possible condition.  There are three primary factors that snowmakers must weigh: efficiency, weather and coordination. We sat down with Tucker Roberts, Snowmaking Manager at CBMR to learn a bit more about these three factors.

Efficiency

When to begin making snow is the first decision that must be made. Variables include, resources, weather, electricity and personnel. The goal is to make the best man-made snow as possible to ensure a sufficient base for the entire season, while working as efficiently as possible.

Starting at the wrong time could mean watching your hard work melt away due to warm temperatures, weather conditions resulting in a less than ideal (and safe) snow pack, or staff bandwidth. Fortunately CBMR is neither required to start, nor restricted from starting on a specific day, giving us the flexibility to make snow when the timing is right.

Weather

Did you know that the ideal temperature for snowmaking operations is around 5° Fahrenheit? Furthermore a relative humidity of 0% and calm or no wind is preferred.

Our snowmaking team is constantly monitoring the weather for the most ideal conditions before firing up the guns.

Including:    

  • Inverted weather patterns: This condition is very common in the upper end of the Gunnison Valley during the snowmaking season, and results in warmer temperatures at higher altitudes and cooler temperatures at lower altitudes.  As an example, we could expect temps of 16° in the town of Crested Butte, 24° at the base area, and 28° at mid-mountain. If possible the snowmaking team will shift their effort toward areas on the mountain that have the most ideal weather conditions.
  • “Wet Bulb” Temperature: The team rarely considers the ambient outside temperature.  Instead they use the “Wet Bulb” which is an adjustment to the ambient temperature in relation to the percent of the relative humidity. This adjustment allows for a more accurate reading of the weather. Too much humidity can make it impossible to make good snow even if it is cold.
  • Wind: A gusty day could transport the man-made snow from the guns plume to an area where the product is not wanted, resulting in wasted effort and energy. Winds above 20 mph make snowmaking efforts extremely difficult and winds in excess of 40 mph can be enough to suspend operations.

Coordination

Once the team has marked the efficient box and the weather has a favorable forecast for snowmaking, a whole waterfall of coordination between snowmakers, groomers, ski patrol, and lift operations are set in motion.  They are in constant communication about on-mountain conditions, trails, timelines, and safety. This coordination is vital to safe and fun mountain operations and continues throughout the entire season.

So what happens next? The team pulls out the guns, put on their jackets, and get to work making snow and grooming runs, so we can enjoy our favorite pastime in Crested Butte.

**Think it stops after Opening Day? Not a chance. Check back for more Behind The Scenes stories from around the mountain.