Wandering the West
December 27, 2011
We’re halfway through Christmas rush and, while the snow gods remain stingy, the snowmakers are not. Those of a certain age will recall the winter of 1976-1977 and know we are lucky this winter for farsighted scientists and ski businessmen, even as others wring their hands over the lack of snow.
I remember well driving into Utah in February 1977 to begin a new job in Salt Lake City. All across the Midwest I’d driven through a brown wind. A fierce drought was gripping the middle of the country. Dirt blew into fence lines choked with tumbleweeds and got trapped in it. All through winter the wind blew and the dirt drifts grew until the fences disappeared under them. It was the Dust Bowl of Depression days all over again.
I pulled out of Silver Creek Canyon on February 15 for my first look at the Wasatch Range and the ski slopes of Park City. And all I saw was dirty snow-topped mountains with nothing but brown beneath. Park City Ski Area (now Park City Mountain Resort) didn’t open until January that season and conditions were marginal until March. Resort owners laid off employees and watched their cash reserves dwindle. The Utah Ski Association asked that several Utah counties, including Summit County, be declared natural-disaster areas.
It’s not nearly that dire this winter. Snow is not falling in any great quantity, yet thousands of visitors are skiing and having fun on surfaces of snow laid down by snowmaking crews hitching their hoses to multimillion-dollar underground snowmaking systems put in by all three Park City resorts.
In fact, Christmas Eve day I rode down the Canyons cabriolet with a skier from Steamboat Springs who’d driven west on U.S. Highway 40 in search of more snow. Imagine! A Colorado skier happy with Utah’s snow this winter! We can thank the farsighted Park City resort owners for making lemons out of lemonade, or more accurately, snow out of water and air.
A little bit of Web snooping turns up the fact that, back in Connecticut, three guys named Wayne Pierce, Art Hunt and Dave Richey, who made skis for a living, hit a major sales slump in 1949 brought on by a lack of snow in the Northeast. 1950, they’d invented a system for blowing air and water out of separate hoses and turning it into a stream of gloppy snow. They patented their snowmaker in 1950 and the first recorded manmade (not artificial) snow shot out in 1952 on the slopes at Grossingers Catskill Resort Hotel in New York.
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Still, a few natural snowfalls could turn out much more snow and at a lower cost (like free). By 1954, the trio had sold their patent and another company took the idea and ran with it.
But all that early snowmaking was in the cold, damp Northeast United States. When Western resorts bought the Eastern snowmakers, they didn’t work so well in the higher, drier, less cold mountains. After the disaster of ’76-77, Western resorts got together.
Back then Nick Badami owned and ran Park City Ski Area, and as a hard-nosed businessman he found it foolish to have so much of an investment sitting idle while Mother Nature remained undecided. He rounded up other Western resort owners, pooled some money, and hired researchers to come up with snow guns that would work in the much different conditions of the West. Scientists at the Cornell Physics Lab found that Western conditions like higher temperatures and lower humidity required different techniques.
With answers to their snowmaking dilemma in hand, Western resorts invented new techniques and equipment, built snowmaking reservoirs, installed chillers to make the water even colder, and buried miles of air and water hoses along many of the runs at places like Park City, the new Deer Valley Resort, and (what is now) Canyons Resort.
And each year they’ve learned more, invented new techniques, honed their skills, with the result that this Christmas was saved, people were here and skiing, even though my lawn is still slightly green.
We can thank Art, Dave, Wayne and Nick for seeing the need all those years ago and meeting it. We locals like to complain that the snow is too hard, or too limited, or that our favorite lift or run isn’t open. But much is open, thanks to millions of dollars of investment and many cold hours by a small army of snowmakers. A day of skiing is still better than a day spent doing most anything else this winter.
One day it will snow. And life will again be perfect in the Park.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for more than three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.