IF MOTHER NATURE doesn't stop fooling around with Utah's ski season, she may find herself out of a job. Pink-slipped. Snow clouds or no snow clouds. Skiers can take long lines, cold days, frosty feet, snow in the ears and a $30 lift ticket but not late starts. She's had things her way too long, now. Utah ski areas are getting tired of her games.
Last year there was no measurable snow until December; and the year before that, not until January. An inch here, an inch there, enough to cover slopes but not ski. Skiers want to start in November, not December or January. By Christmas, skiers have their ski legs and resorts a lower "accounts payable."So, what resorts are doing now on clear nights and cool, sunny days is make snow. Snow as good, areas say, as any from clouds.
Down in the southeastern part of the country, nine out of 10 areas can make their own snow. At eastern areas, eight out of 10. Out west here, three out of 10 can make it. Nationally, about 70 percent of the 600 ski areas can brew their own.
Before long, predictions are, every resort in the country will be able to guarantee a base by Christmas, natural snowfall or not. A decade ago, who would have thought Utah's snow kings, Alta and Snowbird, would ever need the man-made stuff. But they made it last year, and again this year, and there's talk now of them having complete systems within a few years . . . just in case.
No one knows who made the first snow. Story has it that it all started with Walter Schoenknecht back in the winter of 1949-50. Faced with a lean snow year at his one-year old resort, Mohawk Mountain in Connecticut, he located 500 tons of ice, had it hauled to his ski area, crushed it into a "sno-cone" texture, then spread it over his ski runs. A week later he had another 200 tons crushed.
The snow only lasted for two weeks, but in that time he sold 1,800 lift tickets. He later helped develop the first air/water snowmaking system. It seems someone found while testing equipment to de-ice airplanes that the water sprayed through a nozzle under pressure on a cold day made pretty good snow.
It went from there to bigger hoses and nozzles and more hoses with compressed air. Back in 1960, on very cold nights, with help from propane torches to thaw freezing valves, there were systems making an 18-inch pile of heavy powder a night.
Park City bought its first snowmaking at the same time it ordered its lifts 25 years ago in 1963. From the day the area opened it's had man-made snow on its slopes.
Back then, however, it wasn't much to behold . . . a single gun that looked better suited for war than snowmaking, a few hoses on a hydrant and a propane torch to unplug frozen valves. It made snow, however. Now much, but still it was white, cold and covered the ground.
The area got serious following the snow drought of 1977. That year, the season was almost over before any measurable snow came.
It wasn't until two years ago that it actually came to depend on it. Park City had scheduled a major ski races over Thanksgiving and when no snow came it made it. It did the same thing last year.
So, when no snow had fallen, and forecasters were waxing concerned earlier this month, it was no surprise Mark Menlove, communications director at the area, was the picture of calmness . . . "We'll make it," he said, backed up by the knowledge that the area had just planted another $1.5 million to upgrade it's already high-tech system. "No problem."
Last year for the pro race opener, Menlove said the area pumped over 30 million gallons of water through the hoses and onto the slopes as snow. Over the season it used over 165 million gallons.
This year, through over 200,000 feet of pipe, out 128 air/water guns onto 350 acres of slopes, will be able to turn 300 million gallons of water into snow _ easy as turning a switch. Translated, that mean the area can put down a foot of new powder over 10 acres of ski slopes in one 24-hour period - all done under clear skies.
The one drawback is it isn't cheap. According to a report from the National Ski Areas Association, it costs about $125,000 to make one foot of snow over 100 acres of runs. Most medium-sized areas with medium-size snowmaking systems will spend over $375,000, annually. Park City is no medium-size area and its snowmaking, now, is anything but medium-sized.
Still, when you need snow, and it's not falling, and skiers are standing at the ticket windows, it's nice to know you don't have to depend on anyone - you can make it.