Creating Wonderland: A Snowmaking Story, Part 2
Last week, you learned that snowmaking is not your average job. There are long, odd hours and cold temps that roll into one very short seasonal job. The science behind snowmaking takes what happens naturally during the winter, and adds all the right factors together to create snow when and where we want it. The people behind snowmaking and the science of the job come together to create lap after lap on the ski hill, and thousands of happy faces that come through our lift lines.
So what does it take to play Jack Frost and create a winter wonderland? Read on. . .
The thermometer in my car has been reading in the teens in the mornings lately, which is the kind of cold that freezes the inside of your nose and makes your fingers ache if you’re not wearing proper gloves. It’s these temps that sometimes make me question why I chose Crested Butte to live instead of, say, the beach. That questions usually fades as I pull into work at Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) and pass by the base area, which is starting to look a lot like winter. The snow guns have been roaring in the mornings when I arrive, blasting snow that will be groomed out to create the base needed to create the incredible ski runs CBMR is known for. (Want to see the snow guns in action? Check out our live feed in the early morning to watch!)
Exceptionally cold temps (around 16F) and low humidity combine to create perfect conditions for snowmaking. We take icy water from the East River and blast it through snow guns at 450 locations around the resort. Simply put—nature provides the ideal conditions for snow, and we supply the water.
The guns create ice crystals, which aren’t your average snowflake. You won’t find decorative snowflakes shaped like the ones you made out of paper as a child. Instead, the water shoots into the cold air and freezes into tiny orbs. This kind of snow withstands the elements and snow cats better than natural snow, which is why it makes such a good foundation for the nature-made snow we’ll get throughout the season.
Crested Butte Mountain Resort utilizes 162 snow guns, ranging from HKD tower guns to ground guns and fan guns. Tower guns (pictured bottom right) use compressed air and water to make snow (these are our primary type of gun at CBMR). Whereas fan guns (pictured left) spray only water through a series of nozzles around a huge fan (which looks similar to a jet engine) that blows the water droplets high into the air.
If you’ve lived in Colorado for any length of time, you’ll know the weather here is fickle. So the conditions for snowmaking aren’t always ideal. The perfect conditions for snowmaking are very cold temps (way below 32F) and low humidity. Humidity plays a big role in snowmaking, because it dictates how much moisture from the water will evaporate into the air. When water evaporates into the air, heat loss occurs, which is why sweating is such an effective way of cooling our bodies when it’s hot out.
The same is true for the tiny water drops being sprayed from the snow guns. When the humidity is low, more moisture evaporates from the water droplets, which in turn decreases the temperature of the water droplet, which makes it freeze faster. This is ideal because the snowmakers don’t have to spray air through the tower guns along with water. When there’s only water being sprayed, more snow can be made.
During the early snowmaking season (which runs around mid-October to December, depending on conditions), crews monitor the temperature and humidity around the resort closely in order to adjust the snow guns accordingly. The process is fine-tuned and crews work hard to make sure the guns are optimized for the present conditions—which tend to change frequently.
Next week we’ll go behind the scenes with one of CBMRs snowmakers to see what their day-to-day looks like. It’s not all snowmobiles and sunrises for these folks, it’s occasionally blow torches and blizzards too.
Keep up the snow dance!
- Cayla Vidmar