Backstory: The snowmakers of New England ski country
At 4:00 p.m., as the day's last skiers make their way off the slopes, veteran snowmaker Lynn "Cape" Capen is gearing up. In a work area warmed by three behemoth compressors and two active puppies, he plots logistics for the upcoming US Open in snowboarding. He's already covered the Sun Bowl with plenty of "dry snowball," but the Suntanner run, where the Big Air will take place, still needs more, as do Upper Standard and Rimeline.Skip to next paragraph
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Soon Mr. Capen and members of his 30-person crew will fan out over the Stratton Mountain resort on snowmobiles, dragging hoses and snow guns. With tools from packs strapped to their chests, they'll fit the hoses to hydrants installed on the hillside. Then, assuming nothing essential is broken or frozen or just making trouble, they'll turn everything on. Before long there will be snow – great, noisy plumes of it arcing from the guns and accumulating on the ground in the gathering dark.
Although Capen and the guys are a little too gritty and real-life to be likened to elves as they make their way over the mountain, what they do is something like magic. Indeed, in a time when natural snowfall is unpredictable at best, ski resorts across New England depend on their snowmakers to keep the slopes white and the bottom line black.
Vermonter Dave Lacombe, who bears the title of "snow surfaces manager" at the Killington resort, sends members of his 65-person team out each night with crampons and miners' lights. At Wachusett Mountain in Princeton, Mass., one of the region's busiest ski areas, Mike Hayward leads a crew of 18 snowmakers in what's jokingly referred to as "The Department of Mother Nature."
"Snowmakers are the gas in the tank of the Lamborghini," says Alex Kaufman, a staffer at Sunday River in Bethel, Maine. "Without them, skiing in New England would be fundamentally different."
Different, for sure, and possibly nonexistent: Of the 2-to-4-foot snow base most New England resorts accumulate by midwinter, almost all is man-made. And the quality of the fake snow has become a source of considerable braggadocio among resorts – a game played with the laws of chemistry and spin.
Man-made snow is derived from two ingredients – cold air and water – although the technology used to marry the two may differ. Traditional snow guns depend on compressed air to atomize the water into droplets, blowing and cooling them as they're released into the air. To give the droplets more "hang time" to freeze before they hit the ground, many places use tower-mounted guns. Other guns atomize the water with high-speed fans, while airless guns use nozzles to form a mist before fan-blowing the droplets up into the air.
None of this is cheap. A fan-style single hose compressor gun, for instance, can cost up to $30,000, and most resorts have an arsenal of guns – fan, ground-based, and tower. Stratton has 900, an impressive array of 12 different models including Avalanches, Wizzards, and Double Royal Knights. Add the cost of compressors and pumps, along with the electricity used to operate both, and it's easy to see why snowmaking is typically a resort's largest operating expense after salaries.
Given the costs (and skiers' unending desire for perfect snow), it's hardly surprising that resorts both tout and protect their snowmaking prowess. Sunday River has trademarked "the most dependable snow in New England" – produced, it says, by 1,750 guns and 2,200 hydrants. Stratton claims it could lay a road of snow from its location in Vermont to Boston's Fenway Park in 62 hours. Killington's website boasts that it possesses the world's most extensive snowmaking system – 88 miles of pipe over 756 acres – that creates "signature snow."