Snowmaking, as everybody knows, is Plan B. We'd all rather ski on natural, God-given powder that falls from stormy clouds. The real stuff is always going to be better than the fake stuff. But as times move forward, the odds are we'll be skiing more and more of the fake stuff whether we like it or not.
Ski resorts have been proactive to adapt to more frequent and erratic winters by investing significant portions of their capital investment budgets to upgrade and expand snowmaking (as well as diversifying their business to include more robust summer operations). Snowmaking will not do anything to stop climate change (on the contrary, many ski resorts will have to fight hard battles for more water rights). But it is step one in adaptation. According to the National Ski Areas Association, 91 percent of ski areas have invested millions of dollars to install snowmaking systems on their mountains, and the average ski resort has upped its snowmaking capacity by 60 percent in the last 21 years. Even coming off a historic, record-breaking winter, Jackson Hole announced they are "spending significant capital" to boost snowmaking by 30 percent.
Snowmaking is a complicated equation. It involves technical machinery, water rights, the ability to pump a lot of water at high pressure uphill, a lot of energy (which comes from fossil fuels) to compress air, as well as manpower. It's also a necessary evil that's become a central part of operations, especially for smaller ski areas that need to provide a consistent product (snow) to compete with the offerings of corporate ski-ville, multi-mountain passes, and destination faux villages.
Even coming off a historic, record-breaking winter, Jackson Hole announced they are "spending significant capital" to boost snowmaking by 30 percent.
I caught up with Dave Scanlan, who is a co-founder of the Mountain Rider’s Alliance. Scanlan was the general manager for Mount Abram in Maine for the last four winters. During his tenure there, the small ski area became known as a leader in sustainable practices. They built a solar array in their parking lot and implemented energy-efficient snow guns. These new machines saved 70 percent of the energy compared to the old ones, and guaranteed that Mount Abram would be able to spin lifts, even if Mother Nature had other plans. Now, Scanlan is at Eaglecrest Ski Area, in Juneau, Alaska, where it rains 62 inches a year, on average. When I called him, he was looking at plans to help Eaglecrest boost its snowmaking abilities as well.
You piloted new technology in snow guns last winter. How'd it go?
We were all skeptical before trying out the technology. My head of snowmaking had been there for, I don't know, 35 years. And they've all seen different technologies so there was a lot of skepticism.
“The small mountains that have very limited snowmaking—they just simply weren't able to open.”
It was mid-December when we finally got it hooked up. We did an overnight trial and ran [the new, airless snow guns] side by side with one of our HKDSV10 guns, which are some of the better high-efficiency tower guns. We came back in the morning and were blown away. This airless gun had actually made a bigger pile than the HKDs. Our jaws were all hanging on the floor.
How much energy does it save?
Just not having to use any compressed air whatsoever does produce very significant savings. I would say we were saving 70 percent. You're still using energy to pump the water and a lot of water pressure, and that's the one thing that makes these snow guns work is having good, strong water pressure behind them.
But not having to use compressed air is really huge. That translates into a savings. When we were running full steam on those air compressors, we were burning 40 gallons of diesel an hour. So, to be able to save that kind of fuel was extraordinary.
Do you need more water?
No, not necessarily. You just need strong pressure behind the water. You don't need more water, you just need strong water.
“It's a big investment on many, many sides of the equation. The way I look at it, it's insurance.”
Running a smaller ski area, how much of your job is snowmaking?
In New England, it's really critical. Two winters ago, I think we only recorded 27 inches of snow the entire season. The small mountains that have very limited snowmaking—they just simply weren't able to open. We were able to invest heavily into snowmaking, thankfully, and we actually had a really good season. We were only down about eight percent off of our average revenues. Other mountains were down 40 percent. It really made a big difference. Those years can be make-it-or-break-it years.
Snowmaking deals with more than technology, it also involves water. What are some of the other elements that go into it?
It's really multi-faceted. It's a challenging thing. I mean, we're certainly wrestling with the water supply and the water rights to make snow, and then the real cost of having the equipment—and good equipment. But then it's also the staffing costs, and the electrical costs. It's a big investment on many, many sides of the equation. The way I look at it, it's insurance.
Maybe some years you don't have to use it, because the weather is more typical—if we even have typical any more. But to be able to have the option, if the trends are shaping up for a warm, dry year, you're still going to get a cold weather window. Having a good snowmaking system when you do have the temperatures…can be the difference.
When you were at Mount Abram, how much of the budget went into snowmaking?
I would say in operations, if we had to put labor, fuel, electricity, I'm going to say maybe 15 percent total expense was maybe snowmaking. That was after the new [more energy efficient, airless] snow guns. Before, maybe it was more like 20 percent.
And then from a capital investment standpoint, over the three years that we were there, we invested around $450,000 into snowmaking.
Can you place that amount in the big picture?
It was like pulling teeth to get any projects done. So, I had to work really hard to make those investments happen. I think [the owners] were very happy that I pushed them over the edge and got them to make the investment happen.
When I got [to Mount Abram], we had really moved into an era of modernizing infrastructure and looking at efficiency and doing some investments. We also were able to finally execute on our big solar array. It was a pretty exciting time. We got to see a lot of really big changes happen on the mountain that really improved the riding experience and helped the carbon footprint.
Where did that vision to be more energy efficient and independent come from? Is it in direct response to climate change, or was it something else?
There was certainly a factor of climate change. But I think the big driver was looking at what we needed to be competitive in the local marketplace. New England is very challenging in the local marketplace. There are a lot of ski areas in a small geographic area. If you were to draw a two-hour, two-and-a-half hour radius around Mount Abram, there are like 18 different ski areas we're competing with for user days.
For me, it was: How do we guarantee the product that people want?
The ski business is getting harder for the little guys, especially as skiing grows more corporate. How does snowmaking help a small ski area compete and survive?
Sadly, I do think [snowmaking] is one of the key things. Even if you have a year where you don't use it much, just to know that you can turn on the guns and provide a product. With so many options now and these multi-mountain passes with corporate conglomerates driving down the prices on season passes. Granted their window-rate lift tickets are ridiculous, but their pricing model on their multi-mountain pass products is a real challenge for the little guy.
How do you create the perceived value? A lot of it has to be the emphasis on the culture and the lifestyle and more than the actual skiing, unfortunately. Having some sort of dependability that you can provide to your client base is really important. And just [the customers] knowing that you have the ability to put snow on the mountain, according to what Mother Nature might do.
Where do you find optimism for the ski industry?
You know, I am optimistic. One of the things that actually has me most optimistic about the ski industry, in general, is this evolution with the sport of downhill mountain biking.
If you know how to confidently ride a bicycle down rolling asphalt neighborhoods, it's not unrealistic that you could go get on the lift and have this amazing experience riding through the forest on these professionally built trails. It is pushing this whole new way to use our mountains, to use our ski areas.
I think it is as important as the evolution of snowmaking and the necessity of snowmaking.