by Sean Mulready
Loon Mountain Snowmaking
In the last few decades, snowmaking at alpine resorts has changed from being little more than a marketing ploy to being an essential part the operation.
Systems which used to cover just a few key areas or trails now are expected to do much more. Today, customers expect edge to edge and top to bottom coverage and places like Loon Mountain in New Hampshire have put up the money to make that happen all over the mountain and all through the season...weather permitting.
This season, the weather has put Loon's three million dollar, three year investment in snowmaking to a real test as temperatures have gone all over the place while snowstorms have just about gone away.
|A Snowmaker connects the hoses at Loon Mountain
Recently, Ken Mack, Loon's Snowmaking Manager, was thrilled to have his crews grooming out nine inches of fluffy snow. It was only the mountain's second storm of any significance since the season began, the other being a six to eight inch storm weeks before.
That's hardly the norm for early February at Loon. Worse than the lack of natural snow, the wild temperature swings have often forced Mack to shut down the snowmaking system for days at a time while the manmade base melted back down into the Pemigewasset River. The one upside of this bizarre weather pattern has been the recurrence of strong arctic air masses which have provided optimal snowmaking weather in between the thaws.
That's when Mack's crews charge up the 600 HKD tower guns which the mountain has purchased since 2010. HKD systems have a reputation for making great snow in marginal conditions but the 600 new guns greatly expand the margins offered by older HKD
"We used to buy the HKD "Focus" tower," explained Mack. It's still a good reliable gun but its top limit is 22 degrees.
"Now HKD has gone to this nucleating technology," he added. "With the new low energy gun you can make snow with a 26-27 degree wet bulb" (a measure of temperature and humidity)
It's still as much an art as a science and either way it's a lot of work and calls for a well trained crew. Mack spends hours on the mountain watching the guns to make sure they are producing the packed powder surfaces he knows that skiers and riders have come to expect at Loon. He has all kinds of gear to measure the effectiveness of his snowmaking efforts but he goes surprisingly low tech when the snowmaking runs at the same time as the lifts. He goes out on the hill and just watches the skiers and riders gliding under the towers.
"I look for the goggle wipe," he admitted. "If there's no goggle wipe I let them run."
If the skiers and riders aren't wiping away water or ice while they glide over the emerging packed powder base, they have more than the tall tower guns to be thankful for.
When Loon invested in these guns, it also put money into the infrastructure which allows them to run.
|Snowguns at Loon Mountain
New pipes and pumps can be just as important as the towers when you have a short window of opportunity to recover from a thaw. In a normal year, that window could be just the overnight hours or even just the few hours before dawn. When that's the case, Mack's crew has to charge up the system quickly to bring it fully on line to max out its snowmaking potential.
Loon's purchase of 100 HKD KLIK hydrants for the newest HKD towers allows the crew to get the system up and running in about a quarter of the time that the old system required.
In this anything but normal weather pattern Mack's crews have been able to take advantage of that speed to resurface much of the mountain quicker than it ever could before.
"We try to get our key terrain, the main trails, resurfaced within 72 hours" claimed Mack. "With all the freeze/thaw events we've had, we've had pretty good practice at it."
After the early February snowfall, Mack felt that he wouldn't be dealing with thaws anytime soon. While he would love to see more natural snow take the pressure off his snowmakers, he knew that the prolonged stretch of cold weather would allow his crews to offer customers the best possible conditions even in the absence of any new natural snow.
That change has been especially apparent over the last few years for early season visitors. Years ago, Loon used to focus its snowmaking on a few trails early in the season and then hope for natural snow to expand terrain. Now, as much snow as possible gets made in November and December on those main trails, about 25 of them spread across the resort, so that the early season skiers can count on not only the best conditions possible but also a variety of terrain.
Even late season skiers have reason to be pleased with Loon's commitment to snowmaking according to Greg Kwasnik, Loon's Communications Manager.
"Our ski season typically ends in mid-April," he said. "Over the last two years, we have made snow in late March. We were able to maintain excellent conditions right up to our typical mid-April closing date while other resorts struggled to cope with unseasonably warm weather and closed sooner than normal."
Loon's not likely to compete with Killington for the latest closing date this or any season, especially now that Killington has decided to renew its commitment to running into if not through May. What has already happened is that skiers and riders have begun to realize that Loon's snowmaking commitment will just about guarantee good snow for weeks into the spring.
That's not just hype. Loon backs up its claims about using what they say is New Hampshire's most powerful snowmaking whenever possible by offering an actual guarantee.
Its "Superior Snow Guarantee" offers skiers and riders the chance to turn in their tickets before 11 am on any day that the guest is not satisfied with snow conditions. In return, the guest will receive a voucher for another day on the snow.
Even with this year's challenging conditions, the guarantee hasn't gotten used too often, something in which Mack and his crews take pride.