When the autumn chill moves into the Tahoe region, those thoughts of impending winter start to creep back in. For our snowmaking department, this is when the season starts. Our snowmakers take a lot of pride in being the ones to kick off winter. The heavy anticipation of what’s to come is ingrained in the work that they do. Once they’ve started making a significant amount of snow, other departments like Grooming can start work, too, and before you know it, winter has begun.
HOW DOES SNOWMAKING START EACH YEAR?
In the fall — sometimes as early as October, sometimes as late as November — when cold temperatures strike, it is time to turn the snowmaking guns on.
On the Palisades side, we typically start making snow in the First Ventures area. The reason for this is that First Ventures consistently has good, cold temperatures and limited wind. Just a few nights with the right conditions can allow our crew to get enough coverage to get this area open. The tubing lanes are always the coldest spot on the mountain, especially when the temperatures get inverted. When an inversion occurs, it can be almost 40 degrees up top and 20 degrees in the valley. Alpine can get shut out completely by inversions since their base area is higher.
In general, our base area always needs good coverage, so once First Ventures is up and running, we’ll turn to other lower mountain areas. Prime snowmaking conditions don’t always happen on the upper mountain, so when we get those, we do pivot and take advantage of that.
On the Alpine side, Weasel is where we will be starting snowmaking. In the past, Kangaroo was usually the first focus, but we put new guns on Weasel last year, so starting around the mid-ramp of Treeline Cirque is now the first focus.
HOW DO YOU MAKE SNOW?
It’s the atmosphere that makes snow; our Snowmakers take high-pressure water and compressed air and combine them. In the right conditions, the air helps to break the water into smaller particles and creates a freezing effect before the water hits the ground. We use snowmaking guns (both fan guns and air-water system guns) to create our manmade snow. Each individual gun at both Palisades and Alpine is connected to a miles-long system of pipes that carries the water and air across different zones at each mountain.
WHAT ARE THE BEST CONDITIONS FOR MAKING SNOW?
Ideal conditions consist of cold temperatures, low humidity, and limited wind. Our snowmakers like to look at Wet Bulb Temperature, which takes into account ambient air temperature and humidity to determine when to make snow. The “magic number” for snowmaking across the industry is 27.5 degrees wet bulb. The threshold temperature for snowmaking increases as humidity decreases. Here are some examples of what conditions might mean for our teams:
- If it’s 38 degrees ambient air temperature, but low humidity (like 5%), it would make it 27 degrees wet bulb. This means that we can actually make snow above freezing temperatures.
- Between 10 and 20 degrees wet bulb is the “sweet spot” for snowmaking.
- If the humidity is very high (like 90%) we would struggle to make snow at 25 degrees.
WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN THE QUALITY OF THE SNOW?
Colder snow is very light, soft, and dry. This is great for refreshing, but not for building a base. At the beginning of the season, we want the snow to be wet so that we can build a firm, long-lasting base.
HOW DO YOU CHECK SNOW QUALITY?
To check snow quality, snowmakers will take their snowmobiles and ride up to each individual gun to check the snow quality. They’ll go into the middle of the plume, hold their jacket out, and if the crystals bounce off the jacket, that’s good quality, but it’s dry. You want about half of the crystals to bounce and half to stick. If they melt on the jacket, it’s too wet. Next, they make a snowball. If they squeeze it and no water comes out, it’s too dry. If it becomes translucent, it’s just too wet. The snow quality needs to be right in the middle.
These “gun runs” to check the snowmaking guns happen every 3-4 hours. Some are super fast; sometimes the wind has shifted and you need to turn the direction of every gun or turn some off. Sometimes things get buried and you’ll be out there digging out for 4 hours… and you get frozen!
HOW IS MANMADE SNOW DIFFERENT FROM NATURAL SNOW?
Natural snow falls from thousands of feet up. This means it has time to freeze together, which is how you get a snowflake. Snowmaking crystals are more like grains of salt. They are more durable and they tend to last longer. Think of it this way: big, natural snowflakes don’t settle and compact until a skier or a grooming machine goes over them. Snowmaking snow is more like sand. So your base layer of snowmaking is almost like putting down a layer of firm snow or ice that will help freeze the ground and prevent any natural snow that falls from melting.
HOW MANY PEOPLE DOES IT TAKE TO MAKE SNOW?
We have 2 shifts for snowmaking at both mountains. The day shift runs from 7am-7pm, and the night shift runs from 7pm-7am. There are 4-6 people on each shift. We try to put teams of 2 out on the hill equipped with headlamps and hammers. Nobody ever goes out into the elements alone.
WHAT DOES THE DAY LOOK LIKE AS A SNOWMAKER?
The day crew gets suited up to be out in the elements and reviews what the night shift did. Plans are made to address any issues that may have come up overnight. If we are open for skiing and riding, actual snowmaking stops around 8am. The team will then be shutting down guns, rolling up hoses, and doing other cleanup work. They will perform repairs throughout the day, adjust padding on guns, and try to get everything set up for the night shift. The night shift will be out and about doing “gun runs” and checking snow quality throughout their shift.
WHERE DO YOU GET THE WATER FOR THE SNOW?
On the Palisades side, we store water in two different areas. The first is near Everline, where there are two holding ponds. One of these ponds feeds directly to our pump house, while the second pond replenishes the first pond. Our second water storage area is the Gold Coast pond on the upper mountain.
On the Alpine side, we have three retention ponds, the lowest of which is all the way down at Deer Park, by the start of Alpine Meadows Road. The water from each pond is pumped into our snowmaking system.
Even the smallest factor can impact the quality of our snow. We try to control for some factors by using tools like air and water chillers. Chilled water (in the 40-degree range) helps to make better-quality snow.
We also have super clean water with limited minerals or impurities thanks to the high concentration of granite in our area. However, sometimes that’s harder for snowmaking because the water doesn’t necessarily have something to “attach” and freeze to. To help our snow “attach” and freeze at higher temperatures, we use an additive in our water called Snomax, a naturally derived protein.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF SNOWMAKING GUNS?
We use fan guns (which are considered to be more “high-tech) and air-water system guns at Palisades Tahoe. Fan guns are good for base areas or wide open spaces that need coverage. These guns can put out more gallons of water per minute and they can make snow in slightly more marginal temperatures. More and more, resorts are switching to fan guns because they are more efficient and automated. Each gun has an individual weather station that senses temperature and makes its own adjustments.
The Palisades side system is fully automated, whereas the Alpine side system is much more manual. At Palisades, we can monitor all the machines on a screen, and some of our fan guns can be turned on with the click of a mouse. This doesn’t mean that our staff just sit behind a computer though; there is still tons of outdoor work to monitor snow quality and ensure the system is working properly.
WHY DON’T YOU MAKE SNOW IN THE SPRING?
At a certain point each year, we have to “call” snowmaking finished for the season. Removing our equipment from the hill leads to fewer hazards and better skiing. If we left our guns or equipment on the hill all year, they would get damaged, especially from “snow creep,” or the downhill pressure as snow moves throughout the season. That said, we are continuing to install fan gun setups so that we may be able to do spring snowmaking in the future.
ISN’T SNOWMAKING BAD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT?
We do consume energy to make snow, but we don’t consume any water. We move millions of gallons of water and turn it into snow that will then melt and go back into the aquifer. At Palisades, we do not take any water from the PUD or any residential water; it is all our own storage. At Alpine, we get the overflow from the PUD.
WHAT DO SNOWMAKERS DO IN THE SUMMER?
Everything we do in the summer is used to help winter be more efficient, and we use all the time we can get. There is always lots to repair, build, or work on, so it takes the whole summer to make sure everything is dialed in. The first thing we do is take some time to reassess the winter. What went well? What did we struggle with? What damage occurred? What issues need to be addressed? Then we move on to repair work, doing things like fixing leaks in pipes or checking hydrants. There is a LOT of pipe to maintain: 17.5 miles, or over 90,450 feet of pipe, across both mountains.
We also work on new installation projects in the summer or big-ticket items like pipe replacements. In recent years, we’ve had several large expansions and upgrades underway. For example, we are putting 7 fan guns on Red Dog Face and 12 fan guns on Exhibition that will be able to throw up to 250 feet and have almost triple the firepower of the old guns that used to be there.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF SNOWMAKING?
Snowmaking is a cold job. Having to take your gloves off in 15-degree weather while it’s snowing on you isn’t always fun. The long hours and working at night can be difficult at first, too. There’s a lot of shoveling involved as well.
WHAT IS THE BEST PART OF SNOWMAKING?
The best part is the sunrises. You never see the same one twice. It’s a great reward after a long night. It’s also fun to learn to get around in extreme conditions. Riding a snowmobile or traveling through the unknown – dirt, ice, slush, corduroy, powder – is super fun.
IF I WANT TO BE A SNOWMAKER… WHAT SHOULD I KNOW?
Snowmaking is a fun and rewarding job, but it also requires a lot of work and attention. When you clock out in the morning, it is really gratifying to see your efforts from the night before in the daylight. It’s also good to be comfortable in the cold. This is a physical job, too. Lots of rolling out hoses and lifting and setting up. You won’t want to start without a good pair of mountaineering boots and six pairs of socks. Apply online or come out and talk to the team if you are interested!
This post was co-authored by Justin Hayworth, Assistant Manager of Snowmaking at Palisades, with help from the Alpine Snowmaking Team: Tim, Matt, and Winger. Most photos taken by Justin Hayworth.