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The wizards of blizzards

Ski resorts often help along Mother Nature in the snow department using a technology discovered in Florida

Monday, February 07, 2000

By Lawrence Walsh, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Take a drop of cold water.

  At Seven Springs last Wednesday, snowmaking supervisor Jeff Miller watched his machines do their work before dawn. The temperature was about 10 degrees. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Power it through a nozzle to atomize it.

Propel the droplets into below-freezing air.

Watch them turn into snow crystals.

Go skiing, snowboarding or snowtubing.

Until the recent arrival of natural snow, many of the nation's ski areas, including all of those in Pennsylvania, depended on snowmaking systems to provide a slideable surface for their customers.

Although most ski area customers prefer natural snow, machine-made snow is denser, lasts longer and is easier to groom.

"You no longer can afford to run a ski area without snowmaking," said Herman K. Dupre, a co-owner of Seven Springs and snowmaking pioneer. "Customers expect it."

Under ideal conditions, and snowmaking conditions seldom are ideal, Seven Springs' patented system can pump 30,120 gallons of water per minute through its 856 snow towers and, within five hours, cover 54 acres with one foot of snow. It normally pumps between 20,000 to 24,000 gallons per minute.

The popular Somerset County resort annually converts about 500 million gallons of water into snow.

During the 1995-96 season, when the resort received a record-setting 234 inches of natural snow, it operated its snowmaking system only 651 hours. Last season, when 138 inches of snow fell - 70 inches of which didn't arrive until March - the system operated 817.5 hours.

"We make snow until late February or mid-March," said Bill Cavalcante, the resort's mountain manager. "That usually provides enough snow to keep everyone happy until Easter."

The day after Thanksgiving long has been the traditional start of the ski season, but warm weather again last November delayed opening day until the week before Christmas at Boyce Park, Blue Knob, Hidden Valley, Laurel Mountain, Mountain View, Mystic Mountain and Seven Springs.

A successful holiday season, when children are out of school and ski areas charge premium rates for lift tickets - $40 a day for adults, $32 for children at Hidden Valley and Seven Springs - is crucial to a ski area's success. The Christmas holidays can generate as much as 30 percent of an area's winter income.

And that's where the snowmakers come in.

"There wouldn't be much skiing without us," Harry Stewart said matter-of-factly as he repaired a piece of snowmaking pipe with co-worker Richard Thomas in Seven Springs' heated maintenance building. "You can't ski without snow."

Snowmaking has come a long way since that fortuitous morning in Florida in the early 1950s when an air and water system used to generate fog to keep oranges from freezing produced snow instead when the temperature dropped from near freezing to the mid-20s.

That serendipitous event prompted Dupre and others to learn all they could about using air and water to make snow under a variety of weather conditions.

"It wasn't easy, but I think I now know more about making snow than anyone else in the world," Dupre said.

Many in the ski industry agree.

Dupre's patented HKD (his initials) snowmaking system, which he continues to refine, is in use at 200 ski areas in 14 countries. Laurel Mountain and Mystic Mountain use the HKD system.

Among other things, Dupre took snowmaking off the ground and put it in the air. The old tripod-mounted snowgun, which blasted passing skiers from head to toe with snow that was more heavy pellets than light crystals, was only a few feet off the ground. The snow they made was often too wet and virtually unskiable until it cured for at least 24 hours.

Dupre's snowmaking towers average about 35 feet in height and, thanks to the compressed air that propels atomized water droplets several feet higher, the new snow has more drying time - "hang time," if you will - before it lands on the slopes. It can be skied on soon after it's made and it's less of an annoyance to customers with goggles or eyeglasses who travel underneath the towers when they are operating.

"Snowmaking involves more than turning on a switch," said Cavalcante, 34, who has been helping to make snow at Seven Springs since 1989. "It's different every night. The challenge is to do something under adverse conditions; the fun is to watch thousands of people enjoy your work."

One of the biggest challenges faced by Cavalcante and the chief snowmakers at other areas - Jim Saylor at Blue Knob, Sonny Chiorazzo at Boyce Park, Tod Shedd at Hidden Valley, Don Stumpf Jr. at Laurel Mountain, Doug Sinsabaugh at Mountain View and Greg Lowman at Mystic Mountain - is frozen pipes.

"They can be a real bugger to thaw out," said Cavalcante, whose system has more than 60 miles of pipe from one to 30 inches in diameter.

Another major challenge is the weather.

"Until a few weeks ago, it rained every Monday after we made snow," Shedd said. "Now, that was really frustrating. But we started back up again as soon as it got colder. Our snowmakers have done a wonderful job.

"I don't think [skiers, snowboarders and snowtubers] realize the amount of time and effort expended on their behalf by snowmakers who routinely work 12-hour shifts, and sometimes longer, to help them have fun. It is one of the least thankful jobs I know of, and one that often is done under some of the worst weather conditions."

Stumpf, who worked with Dupre at Seven Springs for almost 24 years before becoming the general manager at Laurel Mountain Ski Area last summer, said chief snowmakers and their crews had to deal with a lot of variables:

"Temperature, humidity, wet bulb [temperature adjusted for humidity], dew point, wind speed and wind direction. The wind speed and direction vary, of course, and so does the temperature - as much as 8 degrees from the bottom, where it's usually warmer, to the top."

Laurel Mountain, which reopened Dec. 23 after being closed since March 1989, last summer installed almost five miles of snowmaking pipe, 106 snowmaking towers and 117 hydrants, 11 of which are used by portable snowmaking equipment. The system, which covers about 40 acres of Laurel's 64 acres of skiable terrain, is fueled by 20 million gallons of water. The area plans to add more towers and hydrants this summer and double its water supply so it can cover all its slopes and trails next season.

As his maintenance staff worked on portable snowmaking equipment just outside his office, Stumpf, an internationally known snowmaking consultant, reviewed the basics of snowmaking for a visitor.

"Every water droplet has a nucleator that initiates the snowmaking process," he said. "Our job, in its simplest terms, is to change it from a liquid state to a frozen state."

To accomplish that, Laurel Mountain and other ski areas rely on Snomax, a snow inducer manufactured by York International in Victor, N.Y. The inert pellets, about the size of BBs, are added to the water supply.

"Snomax begins the freezing process sooner," Stumpf said. "As a result, you can convert bigger water droplets into snow. And the larger the water droplets, the more snow you can make."

The sights and sounds of snowmaking can be intimidating.

Clouds of snow swirl from snow towers and snowguns and the sound is what you might hear if a jet took off from your back yard.

"But, when Mother Nature lets us down, it's the greatest sight and sound in the world," Stumpf said.

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