The 2017–18 winter season was one that many at the Park City ski resorts would probably prefer to forget. Scant snowfall and warm temperatures persisted from early November until March, when a few back-to-back storms finally granted Park City winterlike conditions just before spring set in. “I can remember only two or three seasons like it,” says Brian Suhadolc, Park City Mountain senior director of mountain operations and 27-year veteran of the resort. By closing day in April, Deer Valley had logged just 200 inches of natural snowfall for the season; Park City Mountain, 186. A far cry from each resort’s touted annual averages: 300 inches and 360 inches, respectively.   

But the winter that never really was seemed to barely register with the local economy. The Park City Chamber/Bureau reported that lodging occupancy was off by only 1 percent from the snowy 2016–17 season. And, according to Ski Utah, the collective marketing arm of the Utah ski resorts, statewide skier visits deviated from the 2016–17 winter season—the Utah ski resorts’ busiest season ever—by only about 10 percent. Marketing efforts, the ski pass wars, and an even drier winter in Colorado all likely contributed to how skiers, both local and from across the country, decided to go skiing in Park City despite the lack of natural snow. But the fact that ski resorts throughout Utah were able to open at all last season—much less present a somewhat traditional ski experience—can be attributed to just one thing: snowmaking.

Utah’s calling card, of course, is the fluffy, dry snow often marketed as “the greatest snow on earth.” It is what separates the mountains here from many other ski destinations around the globe. If you’ve spent a winter in Park City when storms came as they used to—every few days—it would be easy to consider snowmaking as the resorts’ backup plan. But in truth, snowmaking has been nothing short of indispensable to ski resort operations since long before climate change became an everyday news headline.

A member of the snowmaking team at Park City Mountain, which claims to operate the largest snowmaking system in Utah.

Image: Eric Schramm

Under the Gun

Park City Mountain began making snow in the mid-1970s following the 1976–77 season, when winter did not arrive until after Christmas. In fact, on January 5, 1977, shortly after it finally did snow that season, the entire front page of The Newspaper (now the Park Record) was dedicated to a single headline: “Gone Skiing.” Deer Valley Resort has been making snow since the day it opened in 1981.

Though snowmaking investments usually get overlooked in favor of more sexy improvements (like the latest consolidated pass product, new lifts, and expansions), both Park City Mountain and Deer Valley spend heavily on snowmaking every year, as do US ski areas from Maine to California. According to the National Ski Areas Association, 91 percent of ski areas in operation today have invested in snowmaking, and the average ski resort has upped its snowmaking capacity by 60 percent in the past 21 years.

The local snowmaking systems are among the West’s most extensive, covering approximately 76 percent of Deer Valley Resort’s 101 runs and 71 percent of Park City Mountain’s 340 runs. During summer 2018, Deer Valley’s snowmaking crews installed additional snowmaking guns, upgraded control systems, and replaced several thousand feet of snowmaking pipe. At Park City Mountain, in addition to regular maintenance work, crews installed new snowmaking equipment on intermediate connector Red Pine Road, with the goal of opening Tombstone Lift earlier in the season. And snowmaking infrastructure at the High Meadow run—which, over the summer, was regraded and widened to be more family- and beginner-friendly—was essentially doubled. 

A snowmaker monitors a big-air snow gun at Park City Mountain. 

Image: Eric Schramm

The science of making snow is simple: water and air are mixed under pressure and then released via a snow gun, ideally in temperatures ranging from 15 to 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Thanks to Utah’s arid climate, it is possible to make snow at 40 degrees, if the wet bulb temperature (the temperature a wet thermometer will cool to when air is blown over it) is at or below 32 degrees. 

Because the three main types of snowmaking guns—fan guns, big-air snow guns, and low-energy (low-e) snow guns—have different efficiencies, most mountain resorts use a combination of all three. “Fans and big-air snow guns perform better in marginal temperatures, typically between 28 and 26 degrees on the wet bulb scale, and also do better in wide terrain areas,” says Alex Divers, director of snow surfaces at Park City Mountain. “Low-e guns prefer colder temperatures, typically below 25 degrees, and tend not to throw the snow as far.”

Many ski resorts game the science a bit by using additives like Snomax, which enhances the crystallization process, allows water to freeze at higher temperatures, and helps convert more of that water to snow versus being lost to evaporation. Speaking of evaporation, snowmaking is often touted for its efficiency by moving water around versus absorbing/consuming it—which is an accurate characterization, mostly. In contrast to golf-course or agricultural irrigation, snowmaking—which typically adds up to hundreds of millions of gallons per resort, per season—places water on the ground when plants are dormant. In the spring, it melts and either percolates back into the watershed or runs downstream. Park City Mountain’s snowmaking water comes from the Spiro Tunnel and various wells around Snyderville Basin by way of Summit Water Distribution Company on the Canyons Village side. Deer Valley sources snowmaking water from catchment ponds as well, including the SUP ponds on Deer Valley Drive, and the Jordanelle Reservoir. But, as you might guess, when you spray water up into the air, some of it is unavoidably lost to evaporation—anywhere from 15 to 40 percent, according to a 2017 study by the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research.

Stacks of snowmaking hose at rest inside a pump house at Deer Valley Resort

Image: Eric Schramm

Making snow also requires loads of power. “Snowmaking accounts for most of Deer Valley’s annual energy consumption,” says Dave Mallett, snowmaking foreman for Deer Valley. While neither Deer Valley nor Park City Mountain representatives would divulge the specific amount of power each uses to make snow, both did point out efforts each resort makes to offset enormous power demands presented by snowmaking and other ski resort operations, like running chairlifts. Since 2005, energy use at Deer Valley has been reduced by 3.6 gigawatt hours through an LED lighting overhaul; installation of high-efficiency snow guns, electronic motor starters, and drives; and high-efficiency natural gas equipment upgrades. In the same time period, Park City Mountain’s snowmaking department has reduced its carbon footprint by more than 1,100 tons per year. And in 2017, Park City Mountain’s parent company, Vail Resorts, committed to achieving zero net emissions by 2030. (Park City Municipal set the bar even higher in 2016, pledging net-zero carbon and running on 100 percent renewable electricity by 2022 for municipal operations, and by 2032 communitywide.) And earlier this year, both Park City Mountain and Deer Valley partnered with Rocky Mountain Power to generate new renewable energy projects across the state.

Just about everyone in the industry agrees that, in light of warming winters, the future of snowmaking is automation: systems that self-activate when temperature conditions are right, turn off when temperatures leave the snow zone, and are leaps and bounds more power and water efficient than traditional systems. Management at both Park City Mountain and Deer Valley are moving their respective snowmaking systems in that direction. But those same industry folks also agree that even with a fully automated system, snowmaking’s most precious resource is snowmakers.

Factors like air temperature, wind direction, and humidity are what make snowmaking an art. “Achieving perfect snow is a very subjective thing,” Alex Divers says. “To me, perfect snow is packable but not wet enough that you can squeeze water out of it.”

Image: Eric Schramm

The Snowman Cometh

Being out in the elements for hours at a time adjusting water flow at hydrants, moving guns around by hand to take advantage of wind direction, making sure a particular set of guns is making enough (but not too much) snow, checking hoses for ice build-up, and monitoring the snow quality are just 

a few of the demands of being a snowmaker, a super-physical but, for many of those who do it, super-rewarding job. “I love how a run can go from dirt to snow-covered in just one night,” Mallett says.

In a typical year, snowmaking is a 24-hour-a-day operation from about mid-October at Park City Mountain and the beginning of November for Deer Valley to the end of January. (In the 2017–18 season, both resorts had snow guns going well into February.) Because skiers are on the mountain during the day and the lowest temperatures usually occur at night, most snowmaking happens when the rest of us are sleeping. But both Mallett and Divers say the nocturnal aspect of the job is one of its best parts. Snowmakers, they say, get to work with lots of independence and see a side of the mountain not many are privy to: sunrises and sunsets and wildlife ranging from mountain lions and bobcats to moose and porcupines. “Snowmaking is a physically demanding job and requires long, untraditional hours,” Divers says. “But as snowmakers, our team makes a huge impact on the mountain, which is really satisfying. Without the snowmakers, we’d have a very different ski season.”

Maybe you’re reading this during a weeklong stretch of dry weather after a day spent cruising sun-splashed, groomed runs. Or maybe it’s dumping outside, and you’ve got your feet up in front of a crackling fire after a day of logging thigh-deep face shots. Either way, there are many to thank for the soul-restoring pastime called skiing, from the mountain patrollers, to the snowcat drivers, instructors, lift operators, and on and on. But, where it all begins, in both snowy years and otherwise, is with snowmaking. 

A Word About Inversions

The same phenomenon responsible for the wintertime air pollution in the Salt Lake Valley is also why this winter you may be freezing when you hop on the chairlift but ready to shed a layer when you reach the top of the mountain. A temperature inversion occurs when cool air at a lower elevation is trapped by warmer air higher up. Inversions in Park City can make temperatures fluctuate by 15 degrees at points only a couple hundred feet apart in elevation. Inversions are also why you may see, counterintuitively, the snowmaking guns running full blast at 6,400-foot Gorgoza Park, while the guns are quiet at Park City Mountain’s Town Base, elevation 6,800 feet.

Image: Eric Schramm

More "Nice" Weather Ahead

Almost any fifth grader can regurgitate the basics of global warming: increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere, attributable to human activity, are warming the planet, most notably in the Arctic. According to Brian McInerney, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service (and a Park City resident), the warming poles are causing the jet stream to stagnate; in Utah and most of the western US, that is playing out as longer periods of high pressure, less precipitation, and warmer temperatures. In fact, he says, February 1985 was the last time that the Utah Division of the NWS recorded a monthlong period of below-normal temperatures.

McInerney acknowledges snowmaking has and will continue to make the difference between having a ski season and not, at least for a few more years. But as snowfall continues to diminish and, most notably, as temperatures continue to rise, even with technological advancements like TechnoAlpin’s Snowfactory (a snowmaking machine that can operate in temperatures into the 70-degree range), he predicts that skiing could cease to be economically viable by about 2035. “It’s not going to happen all at once. Climate change is a progressive thing. But what will likely occur is that one of the local ski resorts will not be able to open by Christmas, with assurances that it’s just this winter,” McInerney says. “But then when, say, Alta [Utah’s typically snowiest ski resort] can’t open for Christmas two years in a row, then we’ll know that it’s happening.”

Image: Eric Schramm

The Powder Effect

A 2016 University of Colorado, Boulder, study found a strong relationship between natural snowfall and skier days, or the number of people who decide to go skiing at a resort on any given day. Not a particularly mind-blowing piece of information for anyone even remotely involved in the ski industry. But in February 2018, Protect Our Winters, a Boulder, Colorado-based climate-change advocacy group, put hard numbers to this relationship in their report “The Economic Contributions of Winter Sports in a Changing Climate.” They found that increased participation in high snow years brought in an extra $692.9 million in value added and over 11,800 extra jobs nationwide compared to a year of average participation. In low snow years, the resulting reduced participation decreased value added by over $1 billion and cost 17,400 jobs compared to an average season.

Summit County’s economic numbers reflect how much Park City, where tourism is the largest single component of the economic base, stands to lose in years of low natural snowfall. According the Park City Chamber/Bureau, during the 2016–17 season (which spanned the Utah ski industry’s best winter ever), Park City’s economy provided approximately 9,714 travel and recreation-related jobs, nearly one-half of total employment in Summit County. Park City visitors spent more than $700 million that year, the lion’s share of which occurred during the ski season: winter season daily expenditures are $361 per person per night compared to summer at $165 per person per night.

In other words, natural snowfall is directly tied to jobs and money. During a high snow year, resorts can reach capacity and may not be able to accommodate more ski visits. In a low snow year, the bottom can drop out substantially lower. Thanks in large part to snowmaking, Park City managed to maintain its robust economy during the 2017–18 winter season despite near record-breaking low snowfall. But if the dry years continue to stack up, things will probably not remain so flush, even if it is cold enough to make snow.   

 

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