The revolution began quietly. In 2002, Peak Resorts bought one of New England’s smaller ski areas, Crotched Mountain. There was a little buzz in the press about it, some excitement in the consumer world, and skiing continued as usual, there and around the Northeast.
Fast forward to 2009. Killington gets a run open on November 7. Mount Snow, another Peak Resorts property, opens a lift on October 17. And Sunday River, a perennial champion in the snowmaking steeplechase, gets open on October 14 and stays open. With the exception of Sunday River, everyone else was forced to shut back down due to a blast of unseasonably warm weather…but what’s the deal with all of these early openings??? And what’s the connection with Crotched Mountain?
One word (okay, two): Fan guns. Strange looking things…sort of like a jet engine that fell off a DC-10. Short, fat, ugly. Sometimes they’re sitting on the side of a trail, looking like a cannon ready to be towed into battle. Other times, they’re perched on top of a tower like metallic vultures. This isn’t snowmaking as we know it, with long, graceful nozzles arcing in a line over a trail (and spewing a particularly unpleasant wet mix that usually hits you about halfway up the lift, coating your goggles and turning you into a human popsicle). What’s the deal with the fan gun invasion?
Conventional wisdom, if you Google fan guns, says that they’re great at putting out huge amounts of snow for base areas in very cold conditions. Okay, that makes sense, particularly for large ski areas that both need gruntloads of snow around their base areas and have the big bucks to buy fan guns (which come in at somewhere around $10,000 each, on average). But if that’s true, why does an area like Shawnee Peak…or an even smaller area, like King Pine… have them? And what’s the real advantage in New England’s flaky weather, if they only work at cold temperatures?
Time to talk to the experts. Since Crotched Mountain was the first to have fan guns around here, it made sense to start there. And, immediately conventional wisdom took its first blow. Felix Kagi, then VP of that operation, confirmed that yes, their tower fan guns DO allow them to produce snow in marginal conditions, and to blow HUGE amounts of snow when the conditions are optimal. He commented that “they give us the firepower to open up fairly quickly as temperatures allow, to recover quickly from thaw and freeze cycles, and to offer skiing conditions that Mother Nature can’t provide, as well as skiing conditions that are difficult to duplicate with traditional air/water snowmaking systems.”
Hmmm. That doesn’t sound like a system that’s only good in bitter cold. In fact, that sounds like a system that’s ideal for solving a dilemma of snowmaking; namely, that it works best when you need it the least. Let’s dig a little deeper into this particular snowbank.
Loon Mountain’s a little farther north in NH, and a lot bigger. They’re known for getting open, staying open, and making sure that the Boston crowd that comes flying up I-93 on Friday afternoon has a good time. Stacy Lopes, the marketing manager there, is enthusiastic about what fan guns bring to Loon. She comments that the fans are great at making quality snow at milder temperatures, as well as blanketing the wide-open trails and base areas. Also, since the fan guns have their own compressors, they don’t add stress to Loon’s conventional snowmaking infrastructure, allowing more snow to be blown when the opportunity arises.
So far, so good. Let’s move over to Maine, where…well, let’s face it, Sunday River blows the most snow. Might as well see what they have to say. They’ve probably put more money into snowmaking infrastructure over the past decade than the Department of Transportation has into road infrastructure (but that’s a different problem entirely), so they wouldn’t need ridiculously expensive fan guns to take stress off the conventional air/water guns, right?
Wrong. Darcy Liberty, spokesperson over there, said that “fan guns allow us to produce drier snow at higher temperatures, which disputes the conventional wisdom that they aren’t good in marginal temperatures.” Well, it’s hard to argue with that assertion, given the skiing so far this year at Sunday River! And go take a look at South Ridge…from the base area, you can see a ton of Boyne Low-E fan guns (given that Boyne owns Sunday River, this makes a lot of sense!).
So far, so good. Every area that’s using them says that they do a better job in marginal conditions…but why? Again, the word on the street is that they don’t work as well when temperatures are hovering near the freezing mark. What’s going on that makes them so effective here in New England…is it magic?
The answer appears to be in how the fan guns are applied. Randy Barrows, head of snowmaking at Mount Snow, says that the biggest factor is in how the guns are nozzled. In his ideal world, he gets water that’s at 38-40 degrees, and temperatures above 20 degrees, and produces better quality than he can get with conventional guns. Also, by using tower mounted guns, they can shoot the water as much as 40 feet in the air, giving the new snow more time to literally dry out before it hits the ground. Dry snow, more loft, and suddenly “packed powder” isn’t code for “icy stuff”.
Of course, Mount Snow is a big area…they’ve got lots of money behind them to put into making things work just right. But what about the smaller areas? I talked with Dan Houde, marketing director over at King Pine, to see what their take is…they’ve got a dozen of these megabuck cannons, and they’re not exactly a high profile area. His experience is that first, the fans are the most efficient guns on the mountain; they pay for themselves to a certain extent because of lower operating costs. And, just as at Mount Snow, they pay close attention to the nozzling. He said “if the air temperature falls, we can add more water by using a series of valves, making more snow without using any more air.” Given that the air compressor is usually the limiting factor in a snowmaking system, that’s a big boost to capacity as well as temperature flexibility. King Pine also uses an additive called “Snowmax”, which creates a particle for the snow crystal to form around, making the process more efficient and the snowflakes larger than could happen without it.
So, it appears that the reason they work so well in New England is the snowmakers themselves. Those guys out there freezing their tails off at night have learned how to ue the fan guns in ways that take the best advantage of our weather here. And the result is better snow, more open trails, and longer seasons for us…not a bad deal! Hmmm…you know, it might be interesting to see exactly how these guys do what they do. And since Peak Resorts really started the revolution in New England, it would make sense to check it out at one of their resorts. Attitash is the closest to me…stand by for an update when I’ve had a chance to go play in the (manmade) snow!