From my [Snowmaking] Friends
By Peter Shelton
A few winters ago, Thirsty showed a friend how they make snow on Telluride’s mountain. “It’s so industrial!” the friend marveled. Yes, it is. And it’s so subtle, too, and science-based, and equipment-heavy, and brutal, and dangerous, and frustrating when things go wrong, and so satisfying when it all goes right.
That man-made snow is absolutely necessary for the functioning of a modern ski area is a given. That it is largely taken for granted by the skiing public (and even ski area management) goes with the territory. To the practitioners—the snowmakers—the job comes very close to a two-month-long, continuous-running performance piece—a barely understood, early season art form that counts its ultimate product as a smooth white carpet.
Thirsty (Kevin McDermott) gave me the tour. But first there was a meeting with Ryan Mackey, exuberant head chef of snowmaking for Telluride Ski Resort (Telski), at command central—a large metal building hidden somewhere up Prospect Creek—for snowmakers and cat drivers. “We’ve got 30 miles of air and water pipe buried around this mountain and something like a thousand hydrants. They’ve got RECCO [radar reflector] locators on them, but we still lose a few under the snow every year.
“We’ve got 16 SMI [Snow Making Industries] fan guns—two permanent and 14 mobile—25 air/water ground guns, and 125 air/ water tower guns. We cover 220 acres. That’s 14 percent of the whole ski area, 30 percent of the groomed terrain. “We run four crews of five guys each, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. A day crew and a night crew. Twenty-four hours a day. We give them coffee and Red Bull to keep them happy and productive. Beer after to keep them from being grumpy.” Mackey talked; Thirsty stirred his coffee and smiled without looking up.
“We can run up to 800 pounds per square inch of water pressure. For comparison, a fire hose uses about 100 psi. The air, at 90 pounds psi, is constant. You adjust the water; if it’s cold, we can pump more water through. We create a man-made storm…. Our job is to make a situation FEMA would have to be sent into!”
Mackey has been making snow for 16 years, the last six in Telluride. His hair stands up like Calvin’s (of the comic strip). Thirsty’s been at it for 15 years, beginning in Great Divide, Montana. He’s got a salt-and-pepper walrus mustache. He took me to the pump house on Misty Maiden, one of five on the mountain. Outside, it’s an innocuous wooden building; inside, I found a massive coiled snake of blue steel pipes and valves and locked control panels. “When we’re pumpin’ right up against the red line, 1,200 to 1,300 gallons per minute here, this floor is just shakin’, ” Thirsty says. “It means you’re makin’ as much snow as you can.”
The pump house shakes; the compressor house (near the top of Lift 4) bakes. Thirsty queried me, “You know how we determine if we’ve got the right air/water mix? We stand under the plume of each gun. If it’s dry enough, it’s bouncing off your coat sleeve. If it’s too wet, it soaks in. Each guy has five to 10 guns to tend to. After a few hours, you’re soaking wet. You come in here, hang your stuff up to dry. With both compressors going, it’ll be 85 degrees in here.” The work is “miserable, wet, cold—and loud,” Thirsty proclaimed, with pride. “Whatever it takes, we’ll get it blowin’. We’ll turn it white!”
“The system is maxed all the time,” Mackey stated matter-offactly in front of a chart showing the location and status of every gun on the mountain. You can’t make snow everywhere at once. And you can’t just follow a predetermined pattern: say, Meadows to Misty Maiden to See Forever to Telluride Trail. “It changes,” Mackey said, meaning weather mostly, but also the complexities of moving equipment and water around, the politics of terrain openings (“In our world, it has to be open yesterday.”), and the demands of special events, such as last year’s elaborate boardercross course. “It’s a living, breathing thing. It’s a chess game.”
First off, there’s the wet bulb. “A 28-degree wet bulb is the bare minimum,” Mackey declared, with a glint of the physics nerd in his expression. He explained: The wet bulb temperature is a combination of the ambient air temperature (the so-called dry bulb) and the relative humidity (RH), the amount of water vapor in the air. Higher air temps require a lower RH for snow to form. Lower air temps allow snowmaking in more saturated air. Mackey and his crews can make snow in air temperatures at and slightly above 32-degrees Fahrenheit, but only when the RH is quite low. To get a wet bulb of 28 at 33 degrees Fahrenheit, for example, you’d need an RH of no more than 45 percent. And at that, you won’t be making very much snow very fast.
Mackey explained further, “At the high end, you’re only going to have a little bitty pile after 24 hours. With a low wet bulb, you can blow a 15-foot pile, called a ‘whale’, in one 12-hour shift. Some days you can’t make snow at all up on Misty, but you can down in the valley on the Kid’s Hill. You have to be really tuned into the weather and your environment.”
Given temperatures in the teens, these guys can crank out snow “like feathers,” Mackey said, “or hard as a rock, for the racers…. You have to listen,” he insisted, leaning in. “There’s a tone to a gun that is putting out the snow you want.” Some ski areas run highly automated systems. Mackey wouldn’t hear of it. “It has to be done by men. Efficiency comes from experience, not science.”
The men put it on the line every shift. “The biggest danger is that high pressure. If something breaks. Or you get tired at the end of a shift and make a mistake.” Thirsty remembered an incident last winter. “A guy’d been workin’ all night. Early in the morning, he pulled the ears [the handles on the couplings] on an air line. A 100-foot hose, 90 pounds of pressure with two pounds of aluminum coupling on the end. He couldn’t get in [close] to turn it off. The hose went crazy like a snake. He got out of the way, but his snowmobile got the snot beat out of it…. We wreck more snowmobiles.”
Other ways to get hurt include “the incredible amount of shoveling”—digging out hydrants, digging out ground guns or “fluffing hose,” keeping those heavy hoses on top of the snow, especially in shifting winds when they are quickly buried. There are the inevitable slips and falls; everyone wears plastic mountaineering boots and carries an ice ax. And then there’s electricity. “It takes 480 volts to run those fan guns,” Mackey pointed out. “That’s not ‘Oh, you’re shocked.’ That’s ‘You’re dead!’”
Thirsty likes the physical work combined with the Zen-like concentration required. “You’re turnin’ off and on hydrants 150 times a night. You gotta keep it slow, take a step back. It can get really nasty really quick.” You don’t have to get hit with a flying fitting; highpressure air can “get in your skin and bruise ya. We’ve got pictures down at the locker room.”
Adversity brings the crews together. Thirsty claimed, “We’re the red-headed stepchild” of the ski area’s various employee groups. “You get close, side by side. We’re definitely watching out for each other all the time.”
So. Cold, wet, loud—and dangerous. Frozen guns. Frozen waterlines. Frozen fingers. Why keep doing it month after month, season after season?
“Just tryin’,” Thirsty said without a flake of false modesty, “to get it right.”