What’s at flake: Snowmaking at Park City Mountain sets ski season up for success
All it takes is a bit of art, science and trust in Mother Nature
It was below freezing out when Darren “Daz” Northwood arrived for work at Park City Mountain; the morning sky was still dark and a crescent moon waned overhead. The Englishman was insulated by cozy layers and black, waterproof gear. A white helmet topped with highlighter-yellow earmuffs kept his head warm as he trekked through a fresh blanket of snow.
The whirring sound of snow guns droned on near the Payday Express lift as a coral and bluebird sunrise started to emerge from behind the fog. Daz, the resort’s snowmaking manager, has been making frozen flakes for six years. He came to Utah in pursuit of an eternal winter over a decade ago, when he jumped between the ski season in New Zealand, which runs from June to late September, and the States, where onboarding starts in early October. He became a full-time resident in 2015.
Daz and his team of 58 resilient snow surface employees are responsible for ensuring Mountain Village and Canyons Village are ready for opening day, even if that means working 12-hour shifts in cold, wet conditions. Park City Mountain starts making snow around Oct. 20.
“It’s just the case of setting the mountain out,” Daz said. “We do a lot of work in the summer to be ready for go time. … Moving the water up the hill, having the guns all hooked up, and the crew using what they learned in training and going out and firing up the system.”
When the weather is right, snowmaking can be a 24-hour operation. There are 27 employees per village, not including management, with 13 people working each shift. Nine of those individuals are on the mountain at a time. They are responsible for running the resort’s 590 various guns, some of which are stationary while others can be moved. Many resemble fans or towers but there are some that look like long sticks.
The control panels on the guns have a wide variety of information used by snowmakers across the entire system, though less than one-third of the machines are automated. These 170 can be operated from a command room with the push of a button. Technical programming also allows the machines to increase the snow output as it becomes colder or slow operations, and turn off, if temperatures warm up. The rest must be connected to a hydrant and turned on by hand.
Around 20% of the 7,300-acre terrain has snowmaking capabilities, which began in 1978 and is the largest operation in Utah.
Daz said water is pulled from the mines underneath Park City Mountain. Main pumps at each village act like a “workhorse” to push the water uphill in steel-coated piping. Booster stations are scattered throughout the area where snowmaking occurs, primarily at the low to mid-mountain level to help the water move up in elevation.
Hydrants are buried at intervals based on where the snow guns are positioned. There are also pressure points set throughout the mountain.
“We talk about our snowmaking in terms of water storage. We take the water, stick it on the mountain and it freezes. Then it gets stored and sits there all winter,” Daz said. “The majority of the water we actually use here in Park City returns to its initial source, which is pretty cool.”
High-density polyethylene plastic tubes placed underground carry air, the other essential ingredient in snowmaking, up the mountain.
Despite what some might think, it doesn’t take a lot of science to make snow. Daz and the team rely heavily on Mother Nature, helping to accelerate her process along the way.
A yellow duct delivers high-pressure air to one nozzle on the snow gun while a green hose flows high-pressure water into the other. The elements of nature are mixed as they shoot out of the machine. The water droplets, which have been broken down by the air so they freeze faster, are transformed into snow as they fall to the ground when the wet bulb temperature and atmosphere are ideal.
But snowmaking requires a bit of art, too.
Kyle Nottage, originally from Long Beach, California, stood under a hazy, man-made cloud and pulled his sleeve down. It’s his fourth winter making snow, so he knows what to look for: A grouping of tiny, crystallized particles cling to the jacket mixed amid flakes that bounce off. If nothing sticks, the snow is too dry. The ideal conditions are around 27-degree wet bulb, which measures air temperature and humidity.
Machine-made snow tends to be a bit heavier and wetter than natural snow. Daz said some of that is by design.
“We can make really light fluffy Utah powder to an extent. But the purpose for us is to accelerate the season and get the trails open safely at the start so we are actually looking to make a slightly denser type of snow that’s going to last until April,” he explained.
Crew members have specific spots within a trail they are trying to fill. They can reposition the guns based on gaps in natural coverage. Daz said the biggest challenges are fluctuating temperatures and wind, which can wreak havoc on where the snow lands. There are also the occasional system breakdowns that come with general wear and tear.
The equipment is primarily positioned around high-traffic areas for public and staff transportation near restaurants, beginner areas and lifts that will be opened first. Snow piles are made, and then the crew uses snowcats to move the material and build trails. The traditional starting point is Homerun, from the top of Payday down, with more access created as the season progresses.
Park City Mountain creates between 1,500 to 2,000 acre-feet of snow during an average year. It’s hard to say how much a snow gun can create over time as it varies depending on temperature, humidity and equipment type.
“When we finally hit the big green button to start the snowmaking season, it’s just this feeling of pride and excitement. We get to see the mountain go from the grass to what we make,” Daz said. “It’s one of the few jobs that I think a lot of us have done where you get that instant gratification for the work you put in. You can see what your job is doing and the impact it’s having on others and especially early season. … A lot is riding on us.”
Emily McDonald, the resort’s communications manager, was unable to provide information about how many gallons of water Park City Mountain uses for snowmaking.
“Park City’s snowmaking system currently operates with approximately 70% low-energy snow guns and our snowmaking department is focused on operating the snowmaking system as efficiently as possible, which involves only making snow during optimal temperatures and continuously investing in new low-energy snowmaking equipment,” she said.
Vail Resorts, the resort’s parent company, is moving toward a Commitment to Zero initiative, which is a sustainability goal of reaching zero net operating footprint by 2030. According to McDonald, 100% of Park City Mountain’s electricity was from renewable sources in Fiscal Year 2022.
Daz affirmed snowmakers recognize they’re in the winter business and take great responsibility for caring for the environment. This year, the team was able to purchase new solar-powered machines.
He expects the snowmaking season will conclude in January. Last year, it wrapped up before Christmas. The year before, it went into early February. It all just depends on whether it’s cold enough for snow to naturally fall on main travel passes and safety routes.
Crew members are often transferred to support other departments when the snowmaking season wraps up such as grooming, maintenance and operations. Some will come back to make snow for the 2024-2025 ski season.
Park City Mountain has received 25 inches of natural snowfall this season. The resort doesn’t measure machine-made snow as part of its snowfall totals. However, it does have an impact on base depth which will be measured during opening day on Friday.
“When we finally hit the big green button to start the snowmaking season, it’s just this feeling of pride and excitement. We get to see the mountain go from the grass to what we make. … A lot is riding on us,” said Darren “Daz” Thompson, the snowmaking manager at Park City Mountain.
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