By Karen Lorentz
In the days before climate change, the weather was colder and it snowed more before winter’s official opening date of Dec. 21.
But for many years now, early-season temperatures have vacillated wildly and snowfalls have been anything but reliable, so ski areas have utilized vastly expanded and improved snowmaking systems to provide snow.
Fresh off the World Cup over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, Killington continued its herculean efforts to open more terrain, making use of the extra air compressors brought in for the Superstar trail events.
With 62 inches of natural snow received by Dec. 15, a mix of natural snow trails, glades and snowmaking terrain were open on the Peak, Snowdon, Ramshead, Snowshed, Needle’s Eye, and Bear Mt. areas for Dec. 17 with over 80 trails covering 359 acres. Sister Pico Mountain also opened on Dec. 10 with top-to-bottom skiing. (Check Daily Report for expansion progress.)
Despite, some wild temperature swings, rain and wind on Dec. 18, Killington had 269 acres of trails open at press time Dec. 19 and crews were headed to the Skyeship base and Bear Mountain areas.
In view of the importance of snowmaking and grooming to our enjoyment of snow sports per the given of “erratic weather,” the Mountain Times spoke with Director of Mountain Operations Jeff Temple about Killington’s planning process.
Q&A with Jeff Temple
Mountain Times: How do you plan snowmaking for the holidays?
Jeff Temple: Our snowmaking plan is completely focused on expansion at both Pico and Killington for the holiday weeks. We have had excellent temperatures since the World Cup and have been able to expand quickly.
The up-and-down weather swings on Sunday, Dec. 18, and Monday, Dec. 19, were not ideal, but we managed to overcome the challenges by grooming key terrain after the freezeup, and our snowmakers were able to stay on task, focusing on getting Timberline ready for the terrain park and working on getting Great Eastern down to Route 4.
Moving ahead, the plan is to have core trails in each pod across the resort open to connect zones and add lifts, and then work on in-fill of other trails through Christmas week.
If natural snow continues to fall as it did with squalls and flurries almost every day last week, much of the natural terrain will also continue to open as Ski Patrol deems appropriate.
MT: Are you making snow round the clock? If a trail receives snowmaking during the day, is it closed or open to guests?
JT: We make snow around the clock when we have the appropriate temperatures as our team takes advantage of every opportunity. Whether it is snowing or not, we plan around many variables and make snow where we need it first, whether that is for expansion or resurfacing open terrain.
If a trail is open and we are still making snow on it to resurface it, the snowguns are adjusted accordingly. If a trail has snowmaking on it and we are working at getting it ready to open, then we may adjust the guns to a production setting that maximizes the amount of snow we are putting out.
MT: How do you decide where to make snow?
JT: We develop a snowmaking plan based on many variables such as where we want to open trails next, what that elevation is, the temps and humidity at that elevation, and what the wind is doing. Our system has significant flexibility built into it with regard to water and air capacity as well as snow gun technology. This flexibility allows us run a number of trails and trail sections at once around the resort, as well as respond to what we need on a given day or night.
MT: What are the temperatures that work best for snowmaking and do they differ for different types of guns?
JT: The most efficient temperatures and the best balance for our air and water plant are in the mid-teens. If extremely cold, then temperatures can be hard on the system and the staff. If too warm, the amount of air needed to make snow is significant and expensive. While 27 F is often referred to as the “magic number” to get us going early season, low humidity weather with temps in the teens is probably the ideal condition.
MT: What are jobs involved in the snowmaking operation?
JT: On a given 12-hour snowmaking shift (7 to 7), there are both male and female snowmakers walking on the hill adjusting guns and hoses, plus set-up crews, cat drivers and transport crews assisting, compressor technicians and mechanics watching over pumping, control room operators monitoring pressure, and other technicians. Snowmaking starts with the snowmaker who is actually walking the trail and adjusting the snowgun, but behind the scenes there are many tasks required to keep the facility and production going, and every role is essential.
MT: What does your snowmaking system include?
JT: The system is quite extensive with 88 miles of pipe, over 1,500 snowguns, plus many compressors and pumps. Over the course of the year we may pump up to 500 million gallons of water and 4.5 billion cubic feet of air. We used about 16 million gallons of water on Superstar this October and November for the World Cup trail.
MT: What are the biggest challenges you face for this December time frame?
JT: The weather patterns create challenges, and we have to respond and take advantage of the opportunities to make snow. We have a very complex plan to meet the holiday needs at the resort and depend on a certain amount of available hours to get the amount of snow on the trails. We measure snow in acre feet (1 acre, 1 foot deep), and have goal amounts for every trail we produce snow on. The typical holiday plan calls for around 1,200 acre feet of snow using 180,000 gallons of water per acre foot.
MT: What about the role of grooming?
JT: Grooming is critical to the snow surface’s production and maintenance process. Grooming operators are involved in countless projects from trail setup for snowmaking to transport projects, park building, various trail snow moving projects, and of course nightly trail grooming.
MT: How would you characterize the efforts made this time of year?
JT: This is typically the biggest push for the year, although the other holiday weeks in January and February are also critical along with our late February stockpiling efforts on Superstar, which is really the major spring push for Killington. I have a great mountain operations team at Killington and Pico who are very passionate about producing a snow and lift product for the holidays — and beyond — that will exceed our guests’ expectations.
Photo by Chandler Burgess