Outdoors

Snowmaking: A dirty word turned game changer

Snowmaking is shown at the top of Crystal Mountain prior to opening for the season on Nov. 9.
Snowmaking is shown at the top of Crystal Mountain prior to opening for the season on Nov. 9. phaley@thenewstribune.com

Not too long ago, snowmaking was a dirty word in the Northwest.

Human-made snow was for ski hills in places such as the East Coast and Dubai’s opulent Mall of the Emirates. In the Northwest, skiing on the real thing is such a point of pride that Washington’s ski and ride license plates even boast, “Big Mountains, Real Snow.”

After consecutive winters with poor snow fall — subpar in 2013-14 and historically bad last season — resorts are taking matters into their own hands, at least as best as they can.

Crystal Mountain spent $100,000 on three new snow guns last summer, the first step toward an elaborate snowmaking infrastructure. White Pass is already benefiting from snowmaking. Stevens Pass bought a new gun. Wenatchee’s Mission Ridge, home of the state’s largest snowmaking operation, sold a gun to 49 Degrees North near Spokane.

Every flake counts.

Kathleen Goyette, White Pass Ski Area

“After last season, we realized that’s a pretty high priority if Mother Nature isn’t going to produce it for us,” said Tiana Anderson of Crystal Mountain. “Even if we only have years like last year every 10 years, we want to be prepared.”

Even though Crystal was open for 112 days last season (18 days less than average) Anderson said there wasn’t enough snow on the lower mountain for the ski area to offer beginners lessons. Snowmaking could have changed that situation. “It really hurt and it really cut into our profits,” Anderson said.

Snowmaking definitely isn’t a dirty word anymore. In fact, the term Anderson uses to describe it: “Game changer.”

MISSION: MAKE SNOW

On April 1, 2015, when snowpack is typically at its peak in the Cascades, the Northwest Avalanche Center’s semimonthly report showed Mission Ridge’s snowpack was 0 percent of normal.

Still, the ski area was open with a 2-mile, 2-foot-thick ribbon of snow.

Of Washington’s six Cascade ski resorts, Mission Ridge’s position on the eastern slopes has always meant it received the lightest, fluffiest powder of the bunch. It also means it gets the least amount of snow. It averages 150 inches per year, a third of the next closest ski area, Stevens Pass.

So it makes sense Mission Ridge was first to embrace snowmaking. “What some people are learning now, we’ve known since 1976,” said Tony Hickok, Mission’s marketing manager.

18 million The size in gallons of the snowmaking reservoir at Mission Ridge

During the infamous low-snow winter of 2004-05, Mission Ridge opened for 49 days, more than White Pass (25) and the Summit at Snoqualmie (28).

The following winter it expanded its snowmaking system. Mission now has 18 snow guns fed by an 18 million-gallon reservoir. Last season, it was one of the few ski areas in the region to be open every weekend.

Mission has become so adept at making snow that when organizers of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, wanted to ensure they had enough snow for the Games, they hired Mission’s snowmaking manager, Jon Wax.

Skiers aren’t the only ones to benefit from snowmaking. Orchardists have noticed it feeds creeks when it melts just like real snow. After last season, a Wenatchee irrigation district paid the ski area to keep making snow for eight days, Hickok said.

EAST COAST MENTALITY

In 2006, Tom Chasse moved from Maine to the Idaho Panhandle and took over as CEO at Schweitzer Mountain Resort.

One of his first orders of business was to install a cutting-edge snowmaking system. It was completed in 2009.

“His background was with resorts on the East Coast that had snowmaking, and when he got here and started talking about doing that, people kind of thought he was crazy,” said Dig Chrismer, Schweitzer’s marketing manager. “We get natural snow. We don’t worry about this. But to guarantee the business and make sure we could deliver our product, he was really adamant.”

(CEO Tom Chasse) got here and started talking about (snowmaking) and people kind of thought he was crazy. We get natural snow. We don’t worry about this. But to guarantee the business and make sure we could deliver our product he was really adamant.

Dig Chrismer, Schweitzer Mountain Resort

Chasse was proved right.

“We’ve seen it really help us in terms of extending the season, getting open early, staying open late,” Chrismer said. “It’s a boost for Mother Nature when she’s tired. We’ve been able to stay open longer than other ski areas in our area who don’t have snowmaking.”

MORE WHITE, MORE GREEN

Justin Tornow was woefully shorthanded as he fought back against the warm winter of 2004-05.

“We had one gun and that didn’t cut it,” said Tornow, who oversees snowmaking and grooming at White Pass.

The ski area was open just 25 days, 105 fewer than average. The resort immediately bolstered its arsenal and now has nine guns.

Crystal Mountain was open 71 days in 2004-05, 59 days fewer than average, but chose not to add to the five guns it’s had since the late 1990s.

“That (the winter of 2004-05) wasn’t the eye opener for us. It should have been, but wasn’t,” Anderson said. “At the time we had things like the gondola and Northway (lift) we were anxious to build. They were the priority and they took the capital.”

The Mount Rainier Gondola, opened in 2011, changed the face of Crystal Mountain and gave the ski area an invaluable tool for handling poor snow years.

Crystal Mountain and White Pass were open significantly more last season than they were during the infamously warm winter of 2004-05. Credit snowmaking, groomers, a new gondola and new, higher terrain.

The $8 million gondola can whisk 900 people per hour to 6,856 feet above sea level where there’s typically enough snow to ski even in warm winters. It also means skiing later into the year (July some years) and summer operations. Summer activities can help offset poor winters, Anderson said.

Last season, Crystal was open 112 days. “The gondola has been the biggest game changer of them all,” Anderson said.

White Pass can say the same about the new terrain it opened in 2010. The entirety of the 767-acre Paradise Basin sits above 5,300 feet. So, while the original terrain (which bottoms out at 4,500 feet above sea level) was often bare last season, the ski area was open 110 days.

MORE THAN GUNS

John Gifford, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Area Association, says last season jolted several ski areas to take a more serious look at snowmaking.

“But there is a lot of hair on that dog that you have to go through to determine whether it is viable,” Gifford said. “One of them is water rights. It can be tricky on public land. Another is the capital investment cost.

“So more people are looking at it, but whether or not they are able to do it quickly remains to be seen.”

Crystal Mountain is in the process of trying to secure water rights to build a 10-million gallon reservoir to feed its expanding fleet of snow guns.

The Summit at Snoqualmie has six snow guns, but doesn’t have water rights. Marketing director Guy Lawrence says this makes using the guns cost prohibitive.

“If we could figure out water rights and figure out how to hold on to water, then suddenly we have the ability to make more snow,” Lawrence said. “Really the water issue is one of the biggest issues.”

What you can do with snowmaking is go crazy making it when it is cold then when it starts melting you have so much that you’re OK.

Cliff Mass, UW atmospheric sciences professor

With their hands tied, the resort focuses on what it can. It, as most resorts do, spend summer months cutting back brush. The lower the brush, the less snow is needed to ski and safely run the groomers.

“It used to be that we would open whenever we got 4 feet of snow,” said Chris Danforth of Stevens Pass. “Now, we’re at the point where we can open with 2 feet.”

Snow guns need help from Mother Nature.

“They don’t have refrigerators up there,” said Cliff Mass, University of Washington atmospheric science professor. “Snowmaking really works when it is cold and all you are missing is moisture. That’s not our problem. Our problem is the temperature.

“But what you can do with snowmaking is go crazy making it when it is cold, then when it starts melting you have so much that you’re OK.”

As Kathleen Goyette of White Pass says, and resorts around the region are learning, “Every flake counts.”

A better bad winter

In 2004-05, the ski season was obliterated by a warm winter that brought more rain than snow. A decade later, local ski areas suffered through another snow shortage. It wasn’t the pretty, but this time ski areas were better prepared and were able to stay longer. Crystal Mountain and White Pass credit snowmaking and new terrain. The Summit at Snoqualmie credits summer brush-cutting. While they didn’t have full operation when they were open, here’s a comparison of how many days they were open:

Resort

2004-05

2014-15

Average

Crystal Mountain

71

112

130

Summit at Snoqualmie

28

40

130

White Pass

25

110

130

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune

  Comments