Saturday, September 26, 2009

Snowmaking 101

I'm totally NOT qualified to teach Snowmaking 101. I'm a Groomer, I'm most comfortable sitting in my climate controlled Cat, listening to tunes or talk radio, warm and dry, while doing whatever it takes to get my Mountain in shape to open by 08:45. Oh, these days I'm happy to pull up to a gun or fan and adjust it for better snow or output...dry it out, or shut it down, whatever I can do short of dragging hoses and digging hydrants.

Over the length of my career, I've made myself too valuable behind the sticks to be spending much time parked, looking after tasks other than making smooth corduroy, or safely shaped ramps, roads and runs. I'm still a Free Groomer, in fact.

When the Mountain began to ratchet up our winch program, I jumped in there with both feet, but I found that too often I needed to be more mobile, not hooked up to an anchor, but free to grind out the acres while being able to put out the inevitable prairie fires that are part and parcel of taming the learning curves of the rookies and newbies on the crew.

I turned out to be a Big Picture Guy. My shifts are a constantly morphing equation of acres vs. snowfall, of production vs. breakdowns, and trying to weave the silk purse from that sow's ear. It's fun, but I've got to keep my PanaVision focused on the whole Mountain. WinchCat Operators are narrowly focused by necessity. Sure, they have their own Big Picture, their overarching Game Plan, but they're focused like the laser beam when they're hooked up and making their steep corduroy.

Snowmakers are out there with us, but they are all over the Mountain, all the time. Once they've got their Game Plan made, they get everything set up and ready to go pending the conditions coming into prime spec. Once Mother Nature decides to do her part, they get the system up and running. Then they run routes around the system, checking on the performance of the guns and fans, adjusting for optimum results for as long as conditions permit. As the conditions change, adjustments keep things in the groove, always optimizing towards the goals for the night.

Snowmaking is not a job for a fat old guy, snowmakers work harder than anyone else out there. Sure, they get to zoom up and down the mountain on High Performance Snowmobiles, but they do way more digging than anyone else on the Mountain. They dig down to the Vaults where the Air and Water Hydrants hide from the wrath of our cats. Other Vaults protect the Water and the 480V Power for the Fans. Winds are variable and guns and fans start to bury themselves...more digging. Hoses go under...more digging. One wrong turn on their sled and they're off the pack an into the bottomless stuff...stuck, in deep...digging again. Meanwhile, the ManMade piles up.

Before all their new ManMade is ready for the Public, it has to be spread around, moved precisely where it's needed, and tilled into a safe, pleasing surface. Most nights, all this can't be done until the guns and fans are pulled back to the edges of the runs, hoses moved to a safe location, and the air and water adjusted, or turned off all together. Nothing is worse than making rain all over a major homerun an hour before opening.

Snowmaking in the Central Sierra is a grind. It's a long slow slog to cover the granite and basalt, the scree and tree stumps, and to bridge the creeks and gullies that cross every "Easiest Way Down" It's cold, wet, noisy work that never gets the recognition it deserves...except from the guys who are out there doing it, or working along with the Snowmaking Crew. It's very expensive, and no matter how good the shift goes, it's still "only ManMade"...what could be worse?

Well it was worse before Snowmaking. The last season before the Mountain took the Snowmaking Plunge, was a decent winter, but it took it's own sweet time to get going. We spent weeks farming and hauling snow to the choke points around the Mountain.

With lower than usual snowfall, the Snow Removal Crew had time on their hands, so they brought a big Cat 966 Loader with a big bucket out to the base of the mountain. The groomers pushed all the snow they dared into a huge pile so the loader could scoop it up and load it into a tracked trailer. The loaded trailer was towed by an aging Tucker Sno-Cat up to the thin spots where the cats with blades spread it far as it went. The Main Drag took on the color of Turkey Gravy after a few was ugly. Some wag dubbed it the Gravy Bowl...not pretty.

The "Gravy Bowl" is where the mountain began it's Snowmaking Program. Dual pipes carrying Air and Water were laid from the newly built "Pump Houses" up the Mountain to a series of hydrants where the need for Snow On Demand was greatest. These first forays into snowmaking were strictly "Seat of the Pants" installations...engineered by eyeballs and experience. These first steps did the trick and kept our heads above water as we learned more about the technology, and how best to apply it.

At the same time, quantum leaps were being made industry-wide that allowed us to bridge the gap to the 21st Century. Standing here astride today's snowmaking world is like looking down into the Grand Canyon...all ancient rocks down below...only progress ahead.

That's the hope going forward...we'll see...

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