Making Mr. Flakey

The Evolution of Snowmaking at Blue Mountain

We’re in the Control Room with Mr. Flakey.

Flakey isn’t doing a lot at the moment but soon he’ll be in the thick of his 24/7 shift. As Blue Mountain Resort’s custom-designed snowmaking automation software, he has a big job. The biggest in Canada, actually.

This year, major upgrades – including a new pump and 50 new snow guns able to make snow at higher temperatures – will boost Blue’s already titanic snowmaking capabilities. On the heels of last year’s warm winter, the new hardware is Blue’s assurance that they can roll with the conditions, no matter how marginal.

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Snowmaking Supervisor Patrick Rosewell showed us around the main pumphouse – the heart, brain and nervous system of Blue’s operation. In addition to pumps, this building contains an array of complex machinery and the Control Room, where Mr. Flakey’s computer monitors show maps of the mountain with symbols for snow guns, pumps, hydrants, and underground water pipe.

The cold days (and nights) of the bundled-up guy on a snowmobile manually controlling snow guns aren’t over – Blue’s human snowmakers still use their sleds a lot. But Mr. Flakey is now in constant communication with the guns, pumps and water lines. Like many systems in operation for 30-plus years, Blue’s snowmaking operation is a hybrid; some of the non-automated guns date back to the early ‘80s and parts of the infrastructure are probably older still.

Venturing into the innards of the pumphouse brings to mind the set of the first Alien movie; the rows of hulking compressors, pumps, motors, and wall-to-wall control panels look the part of a sci-fi spaceship engine room. Up to a point, though, there’s nothing overly complicated about the process: the ingredient number one – water from Georgian Bay – is pumped up to a cistern inside the pumphouse. When required, water is diverted to or drawn from two large reservoirs in the Monterra golf course.

To form snow, water must atomize when it hits the air. In some guns the water is pre-mixed with air (known as an internal-mix) while many older models are external-mix, and more reliant on colder ambient air to make snow. This season, Blue has ten new internal-mix guns.

Key sections of the mountain will benefit from the launch of what Rosewell and his colleagues call “high-volume pods” – new tower guns massed 30 strong in the Badlands Terrain Park, and in other locations to be rolled out over the next three years.

Bad weather is something Blue’s snowmakers are more than prepared for. Rosewell: “You have to make snow every minute you can, so you’re watching the weather and always prepping for that day of cold.” Biotechnology, in the form of a product called Snomax, provides a boost during milder weather. With a look and feel similar to frozen popcorn, Snomax is derived from the protein produced by a benign bacteria with a central role in the plant world, forming ice crystals on plant surfaces. In effect, it raises the freezing temperature of water by several degrees.

Plenty of the latest advances in science and technology are at play to lay down perfect lines of groomed corduroy. But the snowmakers haven’t forgotten their past. In a corner of the main pump room, Rosewell points out the now-disconnected control board they used to call “Lite-Brite” because of its resemblance to the lightbox-toy prevalent in the 1970s and ‘80s. “When you clicked a gun on,” Rosewell explains, “the board would light up green or red.” Its exposed back is a tangle of multicoloured wires and motherboards. “It’s just one of those things you want to keep.”

Click here for more about winter in Grey County.

Video courtesy Blue Mountain Resort.