On February 10, 2016

Count on snow

By Karen D. Lorentz

A high power snowgun at the Snowshed base of Killington will kick into action soon.

By Karen D. Lorentz

“The one thing we can all count on during an unpredictable season like this one is the dedication and persistence of Killington snowmakers,” Killington Resort wrote Feb. 4 in its “Drift” newsletter ,providing reassurance to skiers and riders. “With productive snowmaking temperatures back in place through at least the end of our extended forecast, you know that our team is working tirelessly to make fantastic February conditions a reality…This weekend’s snowmaking plan will wring every last bit of capacity out of our system to aggressively resurface open terrain.”

As anyone familiar with Killington’s history of snowmaking and its commitment to the expense knows, such words are not mere hyperbole. They are grounded in a six-decades-long dedication to providing the best possible skiing.

This commitment is a founding principle that “the Beast” built its reputation on. It’s a commitment that was key to Killington’s becoming the most visited ski resort in the East and one of the top 15 in the nation. It’s also a commitment that sees the resort go over its snowmaking budget in seasons where the weather doesn’t cooperate. This same commitment also kept several lifts operating during last Wednesday’s all-day rain when other areas closed.

Born long ago

At the 1981 annual meeting of Killington shareholders, Chairman of the Board Joe Sargent stated: “The traditional assumption that it’s going to snow and then expressing disappointment and negative impacts when it doesn’t, is a thing of the past,” he said. “This doesn’t mean the area won’t be getting natural snow, only that we’re going to operate independently of that requirement. When it snows, that’s a bonus.”

Killington VP Dave Wilcox worked on the installation of the first upper-mountain snowmaking system on Snowdon in 1971 as a technical challenge: “High elevation and steep terrain had not been tackled in prior years, but Preston Smith was right on the mark with the decision to go ahead. There were those in the industry who looked at us like we were nuts. But the inner vision of guaranteeing skiing all over the mountain was a good one. Pres looked at snowmaking as a tool to build constant business by offering top-to-bottom skiing even in adverse weather. It was the late seventies before many New England ski areas could really see that the weather patterns had changed. But his foresight enabled us to install snowmaking when it was less expensive. Even the snowmaking specialist called in to assist us with the Snowdon system wondered why we were putting in snowmaking at that high elevation. He did the job as an exciting challenge, but even he didn’t see the guarantee aspect of it.”

While Killington had installed its first snowmaking on Snowshed in 1963 in a commitment to teaching beginners (the area guaranteed snow for ski weeks for ‘63-‘64) and on the higher-elevation Snowdon Mountain in 1971, Sargent was acknowledging a “slow evolution in attitudes and perspectives” on New England weather—rain, warm temperatures, snow, wind, whatever, whenever—in his announcement.

After a disastrous first attempt to make snow with a Larchmont system that blew up when first turned on, Killington hired its own engineers to implement a snowmaking system and workers invented snow guns to suit a variety of needs. Asked about how he could proceed with the expense when the area was only five years old, founder and then CEO Pres Smith explained his vision in 1988: “It’s one of those things that becomes obvious to you—a path you have to follow. It was very discouraging to blow up $100,000 worth of equipment; today that would be like a million. But you just keep coming back until you overcome the problems and make it work. You wouldn’t do that unless you saw the thread of something there that was important. With snowmaking you could see what could happen to stability and to the enjoyment of skiing.”

Experience over the years had indicated that the weather affected earnings, but Killington had seen that trend begin to decrease as snowmaking and grooming became more significant factors, Sargent explained. Management no longer viewed snowmaking as an insurance policy or a way to repair skier wear and tear. It would become part of the mountain product. The company would operate on the assumption that erratic winter weather would be a normal part of operations.

That was one of the two most important keys to Killington’s popularity and continued growth in skier visits (instruction was another) and gave the area a competitive edge. Appreciative skiers learned that Killington was the place you could depend on to offer reliable skiing.

Many an operator had been reluctant to invest in expensive snowmaking, fearing the price of a lift ticket would go up, or simply not seeing how necessary it would be. They eventually learned that snow was the product they provided and that skiers would pay increasing tariffs to enjoy their sport. Since the 1990s, most areas, including many in the West, have installed major snowmaking systems.

Whither this winter’s weather?

It’s no secret that El Niño winters bring on the challenge of weird weather or that climate change is upon us. While the Midwest and Northeast had warm temperatures with little snowfall, “That’s about to change,” noted OpenSnow.com meteorologist Joel Gratz, according to a SnoCountry.com post.

Indeed, as predicted, the pattern began to change late last week and over the weekend, bringing the colder air needed to resume snowmaking operations as well as some light snow with more in the forecast.

That’s when Killington’s highly efficient snowmaking system, which can operate at more marginal temperatures than in the past and produce more snow at less cost in less time, was able to spring back into operation.

The snowmaking system includes: an arsenal of 1,700 snow guns, featuring over 400 of the highly efficient Snow Logic DV4 Striker model guns; 88 miles of pipe to move water to the guns; compressors that produce 1600 cubic feet of air per minute; and pumps to move air and water. Giving optimal humidity and temperatures, the system can cover 80 acres with a foot of snow in one day.

Long ago, there was a saying “Pray for snow.” Today’s technology has answered those prayers when Mother Nature is stingy with the flakes, so long as she provides continued cold temperatures.

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