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.”