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Schweitzer adding snowmaking gear

Pipe to transport water via a gravity  system  is put into a trench being dug on Midway Run for use of snowmaking equipment.  (J. Bart Rayniak / The Spokesman-Review)
Pipe to transport water via a gravity system is put into a trench being dug on Midway Run for use of snowmaking equipment. (J. Bart Rayniak / The Spokesman-Review)

System may enable resort to ensure earlier opening

Summertime in these parts ends too soon for most. But for many skiers and snowboarders, winter can’t come soon enough.

Instead of praying for snow, the operators of Schweitzer Mountain Resort are taking matters into their own hands.

As the days shorten and the nights grow colder, the resort is racing to complete a $1.4 million automated snowmaking system – the first of its kind in the area.

Fall was already in the air last week on the mountain as clouds curled around the ridge tops after a thunderstorm. Slopes were lush with thick vegetation that skiers and boarders never see – alder, fireweed, elderberry and huckleberry. Branches were laden with fruit.

If Schweitzer has its way, that rich thicket of brush will be buried under a blanket of white by Thanksgiving, whether or not it snows.

Up on the saddle of the ridge, a holding pond is being built to store 10 million gallons of water. West of the Basin Express quad installed last year, a deep ditch extended for about a thousand feet vertically, where crews worked to install water and electrical lines. It’s the backbone of a system designed to cover the Midway run from the top of the Basin Express down to the village in a 300-foot-wide swath.

It’s not a lot of terrain. But most skiers and boarders aren’t going to complain if they can hit the slopes in November.

“There’s a lot of pent-up energy in the fall,” said Jennifer Ekstrom, Schweitzer’s communications manager. “People are ready to ski. If we can provide a more predictable opening it’s one way we can stand out in the regional marketplace.”

Schweitzer operations manager Bill Williamson launched the snowmaking installation in June. To start digging, crews had to push aside up to 6 feet of snow from last winter’s epic season.

The gear is manufactured by TechnoAlpin of North America in Park City, Utah.

Schweitzer’s installation will include nine mobile snow guns, which will circulate among 23 gravity-fed, retractable hydrants. Sensors activate the guns automatically when temperature and humidity conditions are right.

As temperature and humidity drop, the amount of snow the system can make per hour rises. If the temperature is less than 20 degrees, snowmaking is possible even if the humidity is 100 percent. Temperatures in the teens are ideal.

Last year the average temperature at about 6,000 feet at Schweitzer dropped to 14 degrees on Halloween, according to the National Resources Conservation Service. Through November the average was below freezing for 24 days, and it was dry.

“Clear skies usually mean cold conditions,” Williamson said. “If it’s not stormy, that creates opportunities for making snow. If we’re ready to go we could be using the system in October. But having it operating at full capacity isn’t for sure. This year is a shakedown to get ready for future seasons.”

Ekstrom said Schweitzer has been able to open by the first weekend in December about 50 percent of the time. Historically, a Thanksgiving weekend opening has about 25 percent probability.

Working in an industry at the mercy of Mother Nature, ski resort operators are used to such uncertainties. But the stakes are high.

“A Thanksgiving opening is great, but the bread and butter is the Christmas holidays,” Williamson said. “One or two years in 10 that period is pretty thin. This system is definitely more for enhancing the existing snowpack when we really need it. The bottom line is to hedge your bets.”