By Lisa M. Krieger
San Jose Mercury News
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — These are the unlikely saviors in the lofty peaks of the serene Sierra: high-tech snow machines, roaring like jets and spewing million-dollar crystals.
“If it wasn’t for snow making, we probably wouldn’t be open,” said Barrett Burghard, head snow maker at Heavenly Ski Resort, who is propping up the beleaguered mountain economy with his vast computer-driven complex of snow guns, pumps, compressors, pipes, hydrants, nozzles and miles of hoses.
Mother Nature, always fickle, has been especially cruel this drought year to the resorts and mountain communities that depend on snow for their economic survival. Instead of fluffy powder, there’s just granite, mud and manzanita.
So Burghard and other snow makers are fabricating winter where it isn’t.
As the eastern sky turns pink with dawn’s rising sun, his 165-gun system performs alchemy, mixing massive drafts of water, air and electricity to prepare 14 miles of bare ski runs for thousands of visitors. Every night, snowcat crews push piles of the precious product back up the slopes.
Innovations in technology — such as the $40,000 Super PoleCat, with a built-in automated weather station that alters man-made snow characteristics — make it possible to produce an acre of thigh-deep snow in an hour.
That’s enough to blanket a football field with snow 8 feet deep during a three-hour game.
In this dry and balmy winter, the small, historic and family-owned resorts without extensive snow making — such as Donner Ski Ranch or Dodge Ridge — haven’t opened, costing jobs and starving local businesses. The National Winter Trail Days event at Tahoe Donner Cross Country Ski and Snowshoe Center was canceled.
But big corporations running Heavenly, Northstar, Kirkwood, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows and Mammoth Mountain have made major investments in snow-making tools. Squaw Valley alone has spent $5.2 million since 2012. This month virtually all of the snow at the resorts came out of machines.
The goal is to survive not just dry years, but what could be a parched future.
“The larger resorts have the capital resources to do extensive snow making,” said Bob Roberts of the California Ski Industry Association.
At South Lake Tahoe’s Powder House, where equipment rentals have fallen from 120 to 60 a day due to lack of natural snow, technician Michael Breshears said “they have technology on their side, and Heavenly has by far the best snow making around.”
“It is the saving grace,” said skier Colleen Tanaka. Tracking California’s weather from her home in Hawaii, she says “we were a little bit bummed. It is a little disappointing. But thank goodness that Heavenly makes their own snow so we can still have a nice white winter.”
Machines can’t replicate a natural snowflake, a unique aggregation of ice crystals that build slowly during a long dreamy descent from the clouds. They make small round pellets.
And snow is expensive to make, requiring water and power. A gun uses 50 gallons of water a minute, or 3,000 gallons an hour. Compressor pumps, rated at 1,750 horsepower, produce 9,000 cubic feet of air per minute.
But it’s reliable, an essential trait in an age when global holidays are planned long in advance of weather reports. And once the daily snow blast is packed and groomed into glistening fields of corduroy, the quality is better than it has ever been, skiers agreed.
Long gone are the crude snow-making machines of the 1950s, cranky and unreliable, with nozzles that clogged and valves that needed manual adjustments, often on dark nights in bone-chilling weather.
Back then, snow makers waited for temperatures to drop to 32 degrees to start their machines. Thermometers were suspended in trees like Christmas ornaments and checked daily.
Snow quality? It was assessed using the simple “jacket test.”
“If it was dry, it bounced off your sleeve. If it was too wet, it melted,” said Jim Larmore, Northstar’s director of mountain operations.
Humidity, now known to be a critical factor in snow making, wasn’t even considered.
Burghard, a tanned 49-year-old with ice blue eyes, remembers making snow in his early days at Heavenly, when he arrived from college in search of one last ski adventure before a life behind a desk. The challenge quickly hooked the 23-year-old.
“It used to be more art than science … There were probably a lot of times we could have made snow that we didn’t,” Burghard said. “We didn’t have any idea.”
Now high-tech innovations increase the surface area of each droplet, exposing it to more cold air. Sensors read the weather to automatically adapt the guns’ air-water mix. Programmable logic controllers support pump houses, and a network of wires, fiber optic cables and Wi-Fi links sends information up and down the mountain. Equipment is more efficient.
Pellet size is much more consistent. “In the past, you’d have big goobers that were wet and tiny floaters who’d drift off into the trees,” said Joe VanderKelen, president of manufacturer SMI Snowmakers. In very dry weather, snow can be made in temperatures as warm as 40 degrees.
Burghard started making snow in October, when tourists were still strolling Lake Tahoe’s beaches but the mountains’ “wet bulb temperature” — the product of a complicated formula involving temperature and humidity — showed conditions good enough for snow making.
November passed, then December, with nature offering little more than a dusting on top of virtually nothing. At a resort that usually measures a single storm’s snowfall in multiple feet, a mere 31 inches covers Heavenly’s slopes.
This week, the resort has 9 inches of natural snow at 8,800 feet, compared to 49 inches last year, according to state records. The overall Sierra snowpack, measured by water content, this year is 17 percent of normal.
Burghard covered slopes, then re-covered them. By this time of year, his job is usually easing. Instead, he is working six-day weeks managing a 30-man team that works around-the-clock, fixing heavy equipment, icing their brains and sacrificing sleep.
At 5:30 a.m., he wakes to check his Android phone to read the entire system’s performance data.
Atop the mountains, compressed air and water explode from each nozzle, sometimes propelled by high-power fans, as 125 pounds per square inch of air pressure collides with 28 gallons of water a minute in a hissing roar. Clouds of snow blast dozens of feet into the air, suspended for the perfect “hang time,” before drifting and “curing” for a day.
The system is fed by underground water, two reservoirs — one 50 million gallons, the other 500 million — pump houses and 1,100 hydrants.
Despite Burghard’s tireless efforts, only 20 of 97 runs are open. Many need resurfacing.
Meanwhile, there’s a major World Cup competition for Heavenly to host. And a USSA Freestyle event, needing big moguls. Then High Roller Hold ‘Em, attracting an international crowd of big-air snowboarders. Northstar already lost the 2014 Olympic-qualifying Spring U.S. Grand Prix to Colorado.
Burghard’s calculations show exactly how many gallons of snow are needed to host Heavenly’s events.
Can he do it? Even with the best snow-making tools in the business, he sure could use a big storm.
“But I’m optimistic. It could all change,” he said, gazing out at a bluebird bright sky. “I still think it is coming.”
Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.