SNOWMAKING: AN ART AND SCIENCE
| By Snowsports Journalist Daniel Gibson | See current ski conditions after this story |
This week we take a brief look at another key function of ski areas that largely goes unnoticed by skiers, but plays a huge role in how good or bad the experience on the slopes is. As with snow grooming, making manmade snow is an activity carried on largely at night and thus out of sight. None in New Mexico do it more, and better, than the crew at Taos Ski Valley, led by Tommy Murray, snow surfaces manager. Here’s a brief look at the process, plus details on current conditions.
As snow surfaces manager, Murray oversees TSV’s team of 30-plus employees who groom some 900 acres of slopes every night of the season, as reported last week. But he also normally directs its terrain park operations, which is suspended this season, and manages Taos’ ambitious snowmaking program. “Everyone on my cat crew also works in snowmaking,” he noted in a recent interview. “It helps that I oversee both operations, as we really know where snow is needed and where it isn’t.” They usually begin snowmaking in late October, as soon as night temperatures allow, and wrap it up in early January when Mother Nature takes over.
Today TSV has snowmaking all the way to the summit of Chair 2, and over the past few years they have made many improvements to their 34-mile-long piping system, the heart of snowmaking operations. They have the right to use up to 68 million gallons of water for snowmaking but only use about 44 million, he says. Water is most available in late spring and in summer when it is not needed. A new 5 million gallon water storage tank they hope to build within a few years will help immensely to create a good base on much of the mountain at a faster rate earlier in the season. The idea is to capture some of the spring runoff and summer rainfall and store it for winter use. Currently TSV has no storage capacity. The tank will also allow for wildfire fighting, should it ever be needed.
They use absolutely no additive to the help the water crystalize in the snowmaking process, as some other ski areas do. “It’s just water and air,” Murray assures us.
“We basically are farming clean water, putting it up on the mountain, and storing it. It then melts off in late spring, when it can be put to use downstream. Otherwise it would be gone when farmers need it. We do lose about eight to ten percent to evaporation, but for the most part it all ends up back in the creek (the Rio Hondo).”
He notes that natural snow has more air and looser interlocking facets, and “gets beat up pretty quickly.” Manmade is great for areas that receive lots of traffic. A key is to not spread the manmade snow too quickly. They let their accumulated piles of manmade snow, called “whales,” sit for days to lose moisture to evaporation. Only then do they “smear” it out across the slopes and smooth it out. “Patience is the key to good manmade snow,” Murray says.
A year-round employee, Murray spends much of each summer replacing old steel lines installed in the 1980s and expanding the system’s reach, with a crew that does nothing but work on piping.
At the end of the season, the crew strips off much of the snow cover they worked so laboriously through freezing temperatures and the pitch dark of nights to create! This allows them to access to the slopes and piping system themselves, which otherwise would remain under wraps well into summer.
For a look at the TSV snow crew making “whales” check this link out this video on Instagram.
We are headed into the final quarter of the season, with most areas planning to close in late March or early April. Considering our rather meager snowfall this season, conditions are surprisingly good. Snow has come at key moments, and we may be picking some more up this Thursday. In general, March is usually a big month for snow, and even April, so it’s hopeful that we will close with a solid base. This makes for happy skiers, but even more importantly happy farmers, satiated forests, and healthy streams and rivers.
Ski Santa Fe has a fine 56-inch base, and has received 117 inches so far this season. All runs are open, except Sunset Bowl, Easter Bowl, and a few others. With spring break upcoming sold-out days are expected, so be sure to secure lift tickets, rentals, and lessons now for any outings over the next few weeks. On March 14, it will begin extending its closing time to 4:30 p.m.
Taos Ski Valley reports 52 inches at mid-mountain and 64 inches at the top of Chair 7. The Kachina Peak Chair began to spin on Feb. 22. All the lift-served runs are skiable, except Walkries Chute and Sir Arnold Lunn, and all but a handful of the hike-to terrain off Highline and West Basin ridges.
Wolf Creek sits on 92 inches, with 285 inches haven fallen so far. It is 100 percent open, with limited food services and no indoor seating.
Crested Butte checks in with a nice 51-inch base and 153 inches so far this season. Almost all its Extreme Limits terrain off the North Lift and High Lift are open, except Third Bowl and High Nowhere. Frontside steeps to skier’s left like Banana and Peel, under the Butte itself, are open as well.
Angel Fire Resort has a 39-inch base, and 144 inches to date this season. All runs are a go, except the ski area’s hardest-to-find run, Angel’s Plunge, Silver Chute, Maxwell’s Grant and Upper Domingo. Liberation Park and other smaller terrain stashes are in operation. It is planning to close March 21, but could extend its season by a week or two.
Red River rests on 50 inches, and has had 115 this season to date. Every run is open, including the nice Slice Box Glades, crazy-steep Linton’s Leap and the long looping Cat Skinner. Its terrain parks are in action, with 23 features and a dozen jumps.
Pajarito has a 22-inch base, and almost everything open, including Big Mother, Little Mother and Nuther Mother, plus Aspen and Mal’s. It is open Wednesdays – Sundays. They could close as early as March 14.
Sandia Peak is getting by on an 18-inch base. Almost 90 percent of its runs are open. It is operating on a Friday – Sunday basis.
Ski Apache says on its website it has a 44-inch base, on 46 inches this year to date, so something is off here. It seems to be operating on a week-by-week basis, and is open this Thursday – Sunday.
Sipapu has a 35-inch base and is open daily, but its upper runs are closed.
Monarch Mountain sports a 42-inch base, with 165 inches this year so far, and all runs open, except Lodge View.
Telluride has a fine 48-inch base, on 172 inches that’s fallen so far. All four terrain parks are open and all its Nordic trails. All its lift-served runs are open, plus many hike-to slopes. Not yet open are Gold Hills Chutes and Palmyra Peak’s top runs.
Purgatory has 45 inches and all 105 runs open. On March 6, Purg hosts “Hollywood Huckfest,” a slopestyle freeride competition, with kickers above the cliff faces on expert run Catharsis. Big air and big prizes, open to skiers and riders ages 10 and up. Athletes will be judged on air, tricks, cleanness of landing, and riding technique. $40 entry fee.
Arizona Snowbowl reports a 39-inch base, with almost all runs open. It hike-to terrain is currently off limits.
Daniel Gibson is the author of New Mexico’s only comprehensive ski guidebook, Skiing New Mexico: Snow Sports in the Land of Enchantment (UNM Press, 2017). He is a member of the North American Snowsports Journalist Association and has written on the topic for newspapers coast to coast, web sites, and magazines including Powder, Ski and Wintersport Business. His first day on wooden skis with wooden edges came at age 6 in 1960 on a snowy day at the former Santa Fe Ski Basin. He can be reached at [email protected] or via www.DanielBGibson.com.
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