words & photos :: Kristin Schnelten.
Snowmaking at Blue Mountain Resort is all in the numbers. Every winter, the 13-member crew works 24 hours a day, utilizing four dump-truck-sized compressors and 14 production pumps to move and pressurize up to 14,000 gallons* of water per minute to 750 snow gun locations on the mountain.
It can be difficult, cold, physical work. Snowmakers work with a mindblowing level of dedication, forever creating, testing, measuring and dreaming of snow. “Oh yeah, I dream about it,” says Chris Laturney, Manager of Slope, Grooming and Snowmaking at Blue. “I dream about making snow, about riding in snowcats.” It’s an all-encompassing line of work. And there’s never a break in the cycle. Summer and fall at the snowmaking shop is nearly as busy as winter.
In early summer, crews trade in their snowmobiles for ATVs and hit every snow gun, disconnecting the individual hydrants. In winter, the hydrants do the important work of opening and closing valves on each gun, turning them on and off. When they arrive at the shop in the off-season, each unit receives a full tune-up and service, then is stored safely away until fall.
Machinery service continues in the shop—disassembling, sealing, filling with nitrogen and reconnecting each of the four massive compressors, capable of operating at a rate of 5,000 cubic feet per minute. The labyrinth of pumps, hoses, pipes and nozzles, too, is organized, serviced and maintained.
Shop equipment prepped for the upcoming winter, the crew moves on to repairs on the hill. Thirty kilometres of pressurized water pipe cover the mountain, buried beneath the frost line. The main line emerges from the first pumping station at ten inches in diameter, then works its way to the shop and across the mountain like so many tree roots, branching and branching yet again, decreasing in size at each junction, eventually reaching the individual guns as two-inch piping.
Small leaks appear here and there in the winter and are marked via GPS. In summer, crews dig and repair these leaks individually, but when too many leaks and breaks occur in close proximity, the section is marked for replacement. Blue has been at this snowmaking business for decades, and the pipes simply degrade over time, requiring replacement every 30 years or so.
To replace these large sections (3,000 feet last summer alone), crews spend the warm months dragging new lengths up the hill, digging trenches, welding unions. After performing pressure tests, the final step is re-grading the hill over their trench.
Some repairs are more extensive and require reshaping significant areas. In times past, crews installed snow guns down the centre of trails, enabling man-made snow to cover both sides of the runs, based on wind direction. Now, with more efficient guns and a specialized computer-operated system, snowmakers install guns on edges of the run instead, removing the centre guns and their mounds to open the hill for riders.
“It’s really all about creating the best user experience,” explains Laturney. To that end, improvements and steps forward are always in the works, replacing older, less-efficient guns and testing new equipment.
With fall upon us and the last maintenance projects wrapping up, snowmakers are focused on the next batch of numbers: temps. Optimal snowmaking temperatures start at about -4C, and the snowmakers need two full days of below-freezing temps before they can fire up the guns. The year-round snowmaking cycle may never truly stop, but it’s really all about winter. And it’s almost here.
*Because most snowmaking equipment is manufactured in the U.S., Blue’s crew uses the Imperial system.