Heavenly’s snowmaking system puts opening date in front of other resorts
November 14, 2011
The Centac air compressors, the size of vending machines, hummed smooth and loud in Heavenly Mountain Resort’s lower pump house Wednesday. Across the building, man-sized pumps suck water from the reservoir just outside and push it through pipes alongside the air.
With a powerful hiss, the air and water, traveling across the mountain in a spiderweb of 20,000 feet of tubing, meet the end of the trip through the nozzle of one of Heavenly’s 70 air/water snow guns.
Snowmakers zip around on snowmobiles adjusting the flows to the guns for the temperature and humidity, checking the pipes and watching the computers that run the giant pumps.
“I can tell what kind of snow a gun is making just by the way it sounds,” said Barrett Burghard, who’s worked on Heavenly’s snowmaking crew for 23 years.
Heavenly’s snowmaking system – one of the largest in the U.S. – has grown over the years. The resort now has the staff and the equipment to blanket one acre in 31⁄2 feet in an hour. With that much capacity, even if it doesn’t snow by their planned opening day of Nov. 18, it won’t matter. Heavenly will open while other resorts are waiting for Mother Nature’s cold side. And that’s something the Heavenly staff has prided itself on since the 1990s.
“Snowmaking is such a critical service that really improves the overall ski and snowboard experience,” said Pete Sonntag, Heavenly’s general manager, in a statement. “It’s another element that differentiates Vail Resorts’ Tahoe properties from the other resorts around the Lake.”
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With more than 950 air/water hydrants and more than 150 guns of varying styles and strengths, the 40-man snowmaking crew can cover 70 percent of the mountain’s 97 runs in man-made snow. Burghard said he couldn’t say how much water the system uses, but he did say none of it comes from Lake Tahoe itself.
The power of the resort’s snowmaking system was obvious at the top of the mountain Wednesday. The pines near Tamarack lodge were so covered they looked more like tentacled snow monsters than trees. Mounds of man-made snow as tall as one-story houses had turned Ante Up run into a roller coaster.
It’s a romantic idea, having the power to create the weather. But however romantic, being a snowmaker is not exactly glamorous. Snowmaking staff work 24 hours a day in three shifts. They get soaked. They get dirty. They get cold.
When a hydrant breaks, it’s the snowmaking crew that has to dig through snow and dirt to fix it. If the weather warms up too quickly and the water sprayed from the guns hits the ground without freezing, it’s the snowmaking crew’s fault.
But most of the snowmakers on the job Wednesday morning seemed to be enjoying their work.
“If I won the lottery, I’d still be a snowmaker,” one employee said with a smile.