STRATTON, VT. — 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.
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."
Asked what sets Killington snow apart, Tom Horrocks, Killington's communications manager, responds enigmatically: "the way we make it and the way we groom it." Pressed for specifics, he says, "I'd be giving away a lot of secrets if I said more."
Equally unsurprising is that the resorts view one anothers' snowmaking swagger with no small degree of skepticism. Of Killington's claims, one resort president says: "Killington does a good job of creating the illusion that they make the best snow. They do a lot of thumping their chest."
Often the hype extends to the men and women who make the snow. "The snowmakers are rock stars," says Tom Meyers, director of marketing at Wachusett. "They keep us in business."
The snowmakers themselves seem set apart from the commotion. "Everyone makes good snow," Killington's Mr. Lacombe says diplomatically of his competitors – a response that wouldn't get him hired to write copy for the company's website. Lacombe likes the job because of the guys he works with and because he's not stuck indoors. "The views, the sunrises and sunsets – those mean a lot," he says.
Capen, who has been making snow for more than three decades, takes the praise in stride. "Yeah, they talk like we're gods. That's good. I guess we are," he says in his laconic style. "I know this: Stratton would not have opened this year without snowmaking."
Capen and Lacombe both approach the job with scientific precision. At Stratton, a computer tracks every compressor, pump, hydrant, and snow gun. Lacombe attends at least a couple of snowmaking seminars each year, and his crew is constantly testing new products – various additives, for instance, that allow snow crystals to form at lower temperatures.
The job is not without its difficulties. Crew members routinely work long shifts (midnight to noon and noon to midnight are typical). Machinery and equipment, subject to the vagaries of the weather, don't always behave as they should. The snow guns, for instance, are prone to "snozzles," a condition not unlike a nose that needs to be blown.
There are hazards, too. Capen has seen hoses explode and hydrants burst. At Wachusett, a hose once blew up in Mike Hayward's face, scratching his cornea. Sprained limbs from navigating steep and often slippery terrain in the dark are common.
None of this deters Capen. "I wouldn't want to do anything else," he says. In the summer, he takes a month off to hay his fields and raise cattle. Otherwise it's Stratton and snowmaking, and he doesn't plan on leaving anytime soon. "It's a satisfying job," he says. "Fake snow holds up. It's more durable than what Mother Nature makes. [And] where else can you get paid to drive a snowmobile?"
With uncharacteristic animation, he displays the contents of his bulging chest pack: Leatherman, crescent wrench, two-way radio, vise grips, O-rings ... all the way down to the screw and two small nails that he digs out of the bottom. After laying everything out, he stores each item again and shrugs. "You never know."
But when a multimillion-dollar resort is counting on you, you'd better have it, just in case.