Life can be hard for a passionate skier or snowboarder living in the Mid-Atlantic. Winters can be mild, elevations are minimal, and humidity is high. Not exactly a winning combination for those seeking to maximize their days spent sliding down snow covered mountains with planks on feet and smiles on faces.
But for those who call the Allegheny Highlands home, there is a diamond in the rough—Snowshoe Mountain Resort. Ranked in the top ten East-coast ski resorts by the Huffington Post and Snowbrains.com, Snowshoe offers the longest season, best conditions, and most terrain available in the region. Part of that recipe comes from Snowshoe’s industry-leading snowmaking capabilities. To find out how they do it, I traveled to the Top of the World for a behind-the-scenes look.
The real magic behind great trail conditions is Snowshoe’s state-of-the-art snowmaking equipment. As I stand next to one of the bright, yellow machines atop Snowshoe Mountain with Ken Gaitor, Snowshoe’s Director of Slope Operations, I’m convinced it looks as much like a missile launcher as it does a way to deliver fluffy snow to the masses. These ‘guns’, which Ken confirms come in all shapes and sizes, are what allow Snowshoe to offer 100-percent snowmaking capability across the entire mountain. As Ken begins to discuss nucleation, the process in which cold water molecules bond to compressed air and form snowflakes, I realize, for the first time, the real science behind what these guys and gals are doing every night.
Ken describes how snowmakers focus on the wet bulb temperature, which accounts for humidity in the air, as opposed to the more commonly used concept of ambient temperature. His technicians can adjust the quality of the snow by altering the amount of water through which air is being pumped. This is where the art of snowmaking comes into play.
To demonstrate, Ken cranks on one of the mountain’s stick guns and fires a cloudy spray of snow into the air. He walks directly into the stream of falling snow, which I am desperately avoiding due to the fact that it is dark and cold. He sticks out his arm, letting the snow build up on his sleeve for a moment. Then he pops his arm forward. “If the snow sticks to the crease in my jacket”, he says, “then my snow is too wet, and I need to make adjustments.” The smile on his face, paired with the snow in his beard, which is often used as a wager for having the famed Cupp Run open by a predetermined date each season, makes it obvious that Ken is in his element.
Snowshoe benefits from a few geographic advantages that aid in its ability to offer a unique guarantee—the resort will have more skiable terrain than any resort in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, or your next day is free. Situated at 4,848 feet, Snowshoe Mountain is the second highest point in the state of West Virginia. They receive an average of 180 inches of natural snow as result of the elevation and occasional lake-effect snow storms that blanket West Virginia throughout the winter.
Speaking of lakes, Snowshoe’s two lakes are two of their biggest assets for making snow. The water from these lakes is pumped around the mountain to supply water for snowmaking. Like many other resorts, maintaining lakes or water impoundments can provide predictability and energy efficiency. The snow melts and drains back into the lake creating the mountain’s own water cycle.
Surprisingly, Ken explains that the some of the biggest costs related to making snow come from the compressed air needed for nucleation to occur. Snowshoe has massive compressors to compress air, but running them is incredibly expensive. Colder weather, along with more efficient fans and guns, allow them to produce more snow with less air—the snowmaker’s dream.
Maintaining fresh corduroy and smooth trails throughout 257 acres of skiable terrain is not an easy task. Ken says that Snowshoe’s operations team, 24 members strong during the winter months, work in 12-hour shifts that allow them to be on the mountain monitoring conditions around the clock. Grooming and shaping requires a great deal of work along with some serious equipment. Twelve snowcats—bizarre-looking vehicles with tank tracks—can be seen roaming the mountain each night keeping the trails groomed and ready for visitors to carve fresh tracks each morning.
These grooming machines can serve many functions, ranging from pushing snow back up slopes to breaking up hard snow and ice. No matter the application the goal remains the same: expert crafting of smooth corduroy on the surface of the slopes. Gaitor says ideal conditions are 1-2 inches of powder over top of a two-foot base. Gaitor claims this provides the predictability of on-piste skiing while allowing skiers and boarders the joy of kicking up some rooster tails of snow with each turn.
Despite their current positioning among regional skiers and snowboarders as the top destination for downhill winter sports, Snowshoe is constantly looking for ways to improve. In fact, the resort is in the process of significant capital improvements to their snowmaking technologies, which Gaitor says will “Increase our production capability while reducing our resource consumption.”
With just a short time spent around Ken and a few members of his team, it’s obvious that there is another element to Snowshoe’s success. Behind the expensive technology and high-powered machines used to make powder on the mountain, the team exudes a clear sense of pride and passion for producing quality snow. When asked how Snowshoe is able to keep slopes open for such a long season despite the weather challenges of the Mid-Atlantic, Ken is quick to respond: “We have the best snowmakers out there!”