When a new executive with experience in the East arrived at Schweitzer Mountain Resort almost a decade ago and started talking about making snow, people thought he was nuts.
This is the Inland Northwest, they said – the snow falls from the sky. There’s no need to make it.
But CEO Tom Chasse’s idea turned into a game-changer for Schweitzer, and the resort only lost a week of its season during last year’s disastrous drought. Now other area resorts are firing up the snow guns, too.
49 Degrees North is one. Ten acres of the mountain east of Chewelah are being blanketed in artificial snow this year, with plans for 25 acres more next year.
“It sure is a way to hedge your bets,” General Manager Eric Bakken said.
To the south at Idaho’s Bogus Basin, after three years of losing money, a new feasibility study found that the nonprofit Boise ski resort needs extensive snowmaking to be a sustainable business. And Sun Valley, a pioneer in snowmaking since 1972, says it’s an “insurance policy” for the entire community’s economy, guaranteeing a Thanksgiving opening. Ski resorts can make as much as a third of their annual revenue before Jan. 1, but only if they’re open.
Eighty percent of the 471 ski areas in the U.S. have extensive snowmaking operations, according to Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. Without it, he said, “I think it’s generally recognized that the resorts as we know them today would not exist.”
The resorts super-cool water and spray it out as tiny droplets that land as snow. The technology has made big advances in recent years, with powerful new fan-guns that use less energy and produce more snow. But it still requires large quantities of water, usually piped around the resort in buried lines, and power.
Though Berry said most ski resorts in the East and Midwest now have snowmaking “top to bottom, edge to edge,” resorts in western states started out using it to address high-traffic areas and the lower third of their mountains where the snow depth is thinnest. The process was invented in the 1950s; by the 1970s it had reached the West.
There’s just one part of the country left where snowmaking isn’t yet ubiquitous: Oregon, Washington and North Idaho. That’s because the region traditionally gets plenty of moisture with warm storms, and snowmaking requires cold temperatures and low humidity.
“There is not a lot of snowmaking in the Pacific Northwest, but I think that’s changing,” said Dig Chrismer, marketing director for Schweitzer. “It really was a massive season-saver for us last year.”
When other area resorts shut down for lack of snow, Schweitzer continued to welcome skiers. It operated for 120 days last year, even though just 180 inches of natural snow fell, down from an annual average of 300 inches.
“Our snowmaking made it possible for us to actually open Thanksgiving weekend” this year, Chrismer said.
Schweitzer has installed snowmaking on 100 acres at its base and beginner area plus the Midway area, allowing it to open with a terrain park and a variety of ski terrain even when natural snow is lacking. That’s nowhere near the whole resort; Schweitzer has 2,900 skiable acres.
Its system includes a 4.5 million-gallon storage reservoir at the summit, serving 29 hydrants accessed by nine snow guns.
Sun Valley has 645 acres of snowmaking, 555 snow guns including 82 of the new high-efficiency models, and the largest computerized snowmaking system in America.
“The pipes are buried 8 feet under the ground,” marketing director Jack Sibbach said.
Sun Valley has opened for Thanksgiving nine of the past 10 years, and this year it opened a week earlier for a racing camp that drew 250 young ski racers from throughout the Intermountain West.
When it opened to the public on Thanksgiving Day, “It was our best opening day skier count since 1996,” Sibbach said. “Snowmaking has a lot to do with that.”
That also meant the ski town’s hotels, restaurants and shops were busy for the holiday.
“It’s a very important part of the insurance policy for our economy, and we’re lucky to have an ownership that invests in that and had the foresight to do that many years ago,” Sibbach said.
Silver Mountain Resort in Kellogg has had equipment to make snow since the gondola was built back in 1990, but the guns weren’t used until last year, marketing coordinator Willy Bartlett said.
Silver also has made snow this season around the Mountain House and Junction Saddle. As soon as the temperatures got low enough, the resort fired up the equipment to get a jump on opening day.
Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park put in some snowmaking equipment years ago, but it never really worked well, General Manager Brad McQuarrie said.
“Usually we get plenty of natural snow, and you could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars making snow and then not need it that year,” McQuarrie said. “It’s more important for destination resorts that book travel. People won’t book until late in December if you can’t guarantee an opening date.”
Still, Mt. Spokane may take another look at putting in snow guns, he said.
“We may do a small system that we could use for building features in the terrain park,” but not to blanket the whole mountain, McQuarrie said.
Bakken, at 49 Degrees North, said he long had been an advocate of snowmaking, but in his 20 years there it really wasn’t needed.
“After last year, we just saw the importance of it,” he said. “I can see that moving forward, snowmaking is going to play a larger and larger role in the resort.”
Last year was the worst snow year on record for 49 Degrees North; it was only able to open for skiing on 40 days, compared to the usual 110. “It was terrible,” Bakken said. “This year’s so much better already.”
The Chewelah resort is in the midst of a big expansion into the Sunrise Basin area, including real estate development and new ski terrain, lifts and a lodge. That has allowed it to re-capitalize and get its snowmaking system going, too. So far, it just has three snow guns. Next summer, plans call for construction of an 8-foot-deep reservoir high on the mountain to store a million gallons of water, plus 7,000 feet of pipe, at least 20 new hydrants and electric lines.
“Almost every year we’ll have enough snow to open on top,” Bakken said, but not enough down below at the base. Snowmaking will change that.
It’s a big investment. Bogus Basin, the Boise nonprofit, estimates it will spend $4 million to install the first phase of its snowmaking system, aimed at allowing the resort to open with top-to-bottom skiing on 60 acres and full coverage of its beginner area, even if no natural snow falls. Brad Wilson, general manager, said if the same system were put in 20 years ago, it would have cost $10 million. Advances in the technology have made it cheaper and more efficient.
The biggest snowmaking operation in Washington is at Mission Ridge Ski & Board Resort near Wenatchee. The location on the east side of the Cascades puts it in the ideal spot: in the rain shadow of the mountains, but with cold temperatures, low humidity and relatively high elevations.
Marketing Director Tony Hickok points to a startling aerial photo taken last year in early November, when the area’s ski runs were blanketed white but everything else in the surrounding landscape was brown or green.
“It helps us consistently open earlier and have better conditions throughout the season,” Hickok said. “We’re glad that everybody else is catching on, because it’s something that we’ve believed in for a long time.”
Man-made snow also is seen as another form of water storage: When it melts in the spring, it goes right back into the water table and can be used for agriculture or other downstream uses. Last spring, orchard owners and irrigators made a deal with Mission Ridge to have the snow guns keep running for an extra eight days after the resort closed for the season – just to store more snowpack on the mountain that gradually would melt and supply agriculture.
Bakken noted that ski resort snowmaking systems also have been used to fight wildfires in the summer.
“We are just now starting to figure it out,” he said, “but it’s a pretty cool technology, and it’s definitely going to make a difference here.”