Snowmaking: An Art and Science
| By Snowsports Journalist Daniel Gibson |
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.
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.
This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead