Snow-making goes high tech at ski resorts

Los Angeles Times

Mother Nature has been a fickle manager of snowfall lately, sending an avalanche of powder to ski resorts across the country two years ago, followed by the least amount of snowfall in decades last winter.

A scattering of storms already has swept through the West and Northeast this winter, but it’s too early to tell if this season will be a snowy success or another dry disappointment.

But ski-resort managers are losing less sleep over erratic weather conditions after making a flurry of investments in the past few years in ultra- efficient, computerized snow-making equipment.

Once powered by diesel air compressors and monitored by workers on snowmobiles, today’s snow-making systems rely on computers, fiber-optic cables and low-energy fans that can be controlled by smartphone or programmed to automatically make snow when conditions are prime.

The good news for powder hounds is that the frozen spray generated by modern snow-making equipment is so close to real snow that even veteran skiers can’t tell the difference.

“If I’m going down a run, I can’t tell you if I just skied on natural or man-made snow,” said Bruce Lee, a Redondo Beach, Calif., resident who has been skiing for 30 years in Vermont, Pennsylvania, Utah, Colorado and California. “I’ll bet no one can tell the difference.”

Last year’s ultra-dry season only reinforced the value of artificial snow-making systems. The 2011-12 season marked the lowest national average snowfall in 20 years, forcing half of the nation’s resorts to either open late or close early.

The National Resources Defense Council estimates that ski resorts lost $1 billion in revenue because of meager snowfall in the past decade.

Resort operators that already had invested heavily in snow-making equipment said man-made snow helped them avoid a complete bust.

“For us, the reaction to last year was, ‘Thank God we’ve done what we did in the past,’” said Pete Sonntag, general manager at Lake Tahoe’s Heavenly ski resort, where 155 snow-making machines can cover 65 percent of the resort’s skiable terrain.

Heavenly’s snow-making system — the largest on the West Coast — can be controlled from a desktop computer at a pump house on the mountain or a smartphone carried by Barrett Burghard, the resort’s senior manager for snow surfaces.

“I’m not going to lie and say we can make snow as good as Mother Nature,” Burghard said as he glanced at a computer screen to check the water levels in the resort’s storage tanks. “But it’s close.”

The best man-made snow, he said, is light and can be pressed into a snowball without oozing water.

He has another, very unscientific method for testing his machine-spewed snow: He tosses it against his arm to see how it bounces off his sleeve. “There’s an art to making snow,” Burghard said.

Even in Colorado, where natural snow is more abundant, some resort owners have invested in new snow-making equipment as a hedge against future dry seasons. Over the past three years, for example, the Breckenridge Ski Resort added more than 150 energy-efficient snow guns.

Some ski resorts that are blessed with heavy annual snowfall have not made big investments in snow- making equipment.

“We look to Mother Nature to provide for us,” said Stephen Hemphill, a spokesman for Sierra-at-Tahoe, a 2,000-acre resort south of Lake Tahoe that gets an average of 480 inches of natural snow a year.

Whether it’s man-made or natural snow, skiers who endured last year’s dry snow season say they are grateful to have anything that lets them fly down the mountain.

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