About 12 hours before Tamarack Resort opened its ski area for the season last week — on a 14-degree, lightly snowy night — a crew of four snowmakers zipped up and down the mountain on snowmobiles checking on the system of snowguns that made the opening possible.
The snowguns fire tiny water droplets into the air. The water freezes almost instantly and lands on the ground as snow. It’s a process that has become increasingly common and important at Idaho’s ski areas because of the unpredictable arrival of natural snow.
“It would be impossible for this place to operate without it,” said Jeremy Leslie, the grooming supervisor at Tamarack. “We’re just too warm.”
Tamarack has used snowmaking since it opened in 2004 with an extensive system of water pumps, cooling towers, underground plumbing and hydrants feeding 10-12 snowguns in key locations, primarily on the beginner and intermediate runs Waltz, Showtime, Homestead and Discovery and in the terrain park.
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Nearby, Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area near Boise and Brundage Mountain Resort near McCall credit new snowmaking equipment for allowing them to open Saturday, the day after Tamarack. Bogus Basin is drawing up plans for a $5 million snowmaking system that would provide similar coverage to Tamarack’s.
“It costs hundreds of dollars to make snow. It costs thousands to not open, so this really is a critical insurance policy,” Tamarack General Manager Brad Larsen said. “You miss Christmas, you’re out millions of dollars.”
The winter of 2011-12 was a “wakeup call” for Idaho’s ski areas, said April Whitney, the communication director at Brundage. That winter, Brundage didn’t open until Dec. 30 and Bogus Basin lost about $3 million in revenue with a record-late opening of Jan. 19.
“You don’t ever want to let the kids down for Christmas break,” Whitney said. “That’s as much of a financial issue as it is just a moral issue as a ski resort operator. You’ve got to be there for the kids. ... You can tell each of the different resorts have targeted some different strategies, and it’s paying off — this weekend is a great example of that.”
Snowmaking was envisioned as a key piece of the Tamarack operation from the start. The base elevation of 4,900 feet leaves portions of the ski area susceptible to warm temperatures and the mountain has some year-round marshy areas that must be covered with snow. The TechnoAlpin system is one of the largest in the state.
Tamarack aims to make snow beginning Nov. 1 each year but needs cold enough temperatures for the system to work. Snowmaking operates based on “wet bulb” temperature (you’d need a science class to explain it), which at humid Tamarack usually is slightly lower than the air temperature.
Tamarack needs a wet bulb temperature of 26 degrees to make a minimal amount of snow. The colder it gets, the more water the crew can push through the snowguns and the more snow they can produce. That’s why much of the work is done at night.
Tamarack opened this season after two weeks of snowmaking. The system can handle a maximum of 1,100 gallons of water per minute. At that rate, Tamarack can produce enough snow to cover an acre of terrain a foot deep in 90 minutes.
By matching water output to the air temperature, the crew can create anything from creamy, light snow to wet, heavy snow.
“We’re looking for that perfect snowball snow that will still break in your hand,” said Robert Swan, the snowmaking foreman.
While skiers prefer the lightness of powder, snowmakers want wet, sticky snow to build a strong base that can handle the abuse of skiers and warm spells and cover obstacles like tree stumps, water bars and roads. Tamarack cranked out some powdery snow Thursday night because it would be skied on the next day but that’s “kind of a waste of snowmaking,” Swan said.
“Ideally, we want big piles, and then you push them with the (snowcat),” he said.
One of the biggest differences between natural snow and man-made snow is the size of the snowflakes. Snowguns spit water 10 to 20 feet into the air, leaving little time for the molecules to freeze. The combination of water pressure, built-in air compressors and tiny openings in the valves creates miniscule water droplets that are more like mist.
“I can’t make big snowflakes,” Swan said. “They are tiny, tiny, tiny water molecules. I’m taking compressed water and compressed air and blasting them into each other to break that molecule up as much as I can and then it will crystallize around that. If you do big rain droplets, you get ice. Mother Nature has thousands of feet for that rain droplet to turn into snow. I get about 10 to 20 feet.”
Both processes create snow — but they aren’t the same.
“We are doing our best to duplicate Mother Nature,” Leslie said, “but it is basically impossible. The crystal formations are completely different. ... If you could duplicate Mother Nature powder, you’d be the richest person on the planet.”
Tamarack’s system pales in comparison to the operation at Sun Valley Resort, which has 560 snowguns. But it’s far ahead of the rudimentary operations at Brundage and Bogus Basin, who are just beginning to dabble with snowmaking.
Brundage has three snowguns shared between the ski area and the Activity Barn tubing hill in McCall. Snowmaking allowed Brundage to announce the opening of its beginner hill in advance of last week’s storm. Plus, improved infrastructure expanded snowmaking to the Bear Chair/Centennial lift area (the lowest spot at the resort), which helped make that portion of the mountain a last-minute addition to the opening.
Bogus Basin has four snowguns that are moved around to place snow on the beginner slope off the Coach chair, Lower Ridge, the area between the bottom of Showcase and Simplot Lodge, portions of Silver Queen and Pioneer Trail off the Morning Star chair and the base area around the Superior chair. The system made it possible for Bogus to announce its Saturday opening in advance, too.
General Manager Brad Wilson is working to secure water rights for a larger system and hopes to embark on a fundraising campaign for the $5 million system in the spring. That system would provide top-to-bottom snowmaking off Deer Point Express, the main lift from the base area, and Morning Star.
“It won’t be Sun Valley, but it will be similar to Tamarack,” Wilson said. “We’ll be able to open a few trails top to bottom. We will guarantee an opening this time of year, but honestly, this year — even as warm as it was — we could have opened top to bottom at Thanksgiving. We had the temperatures, but we don’t have the facilities to do it.”
Wilson wants to assure the ski area’s 20,000 season-pass holders that they will have a consistent season and avoid another missed Christmas. He estimates the odds of a late start to the season have increased from one in 10 years to three in 10 years.
“I tell the board (of directors),” he said, “ ‘It’s barbaric sitting here waiting for it to snow when you could be making snow.’ ”
Tamarack’s snowmaking process
- Water is pumped from a well to the mountain pump station.
- Water is pushed through cooling towers that utilize fans and outside air temperature. The water comes in at about 56 degrees — too warm for snowmaking. On Thursday night, the water was down to 38 degrees by the time it left the pump house.
- A 400-horsepower pump pushes water up the mountain to hydrants through underground plumbing. A 150-horsepower pump pushes water down the mountain to the lower hydrants.
- About 10-12 snowguns are attached to hydrants spread across key runs like Waltz, Showtime, Homestead and Discovery. The guns can be moved to different locations but the need for water and power limits their range.
- Water is released through the snowguns with about 350 pounds per square inch of pressure with help from built-in air compressors. The water squirts through pinhole-sized nozzles, which create tiny water molecules, and gets spread by fans. The water shoots 10-20 feet into the air in a mist and freezes before it hits the ground (the higher it flies, the drier the snow).
- The guns create snow piles. Those are distributed by snowcats.
- Note: Snowmaking is considered “non-consumptive” water use because the water returns to the aquifer when the snow melts.