While a few regional ski areas are open, we are now playing a waiting game for winter to really show up. Although it only takes one really significant snowfall to change things, it’s likely that the initial ski and boarding season will be done on limited terrain and even that on mostly man-made snow. So what really is the composition of such snow? Can it really even be called snow? What are local areas doing to produce it and how?
I say if it skis like snow and looks like snow, it is snow, but there is no denying there is a difference between what Mother Nature creates and mankind makes. Generally man-made snow is wetter and denser than natural snow—especially in this region where we often are blessed with superdry powder.
Because of its density, man-made snow can create a good, solid base that stands up to lots of skiers, but can also feel like ice in early morning before it softens up.
Man-made snow, explains Taos Ski Valley snow guru John Weinmeister, is really more akin to a salt crystal than a snowflake. “The snow ski areas make is very dense and almost entirely water. But here we aim to produce a high- quality, drier snow, and we’ll wait until conditions allow for that.” He said that temperatures must be at least 28 degrees, “wet-bulb” temperature — like windchill. The product itself is just water and compressed air. Air is blown out from one small nozzle and water from another at the end of tall standpipes; they collide, and viola — the white stuff. By varying these factors, one can produce snow ranging from extremely dense to what is called “dress snow” — so light and dry it won’t form into a ball when squeezed.
Taos has been making snow for weeks every night. They now have Whitefeather and Powderhorn open and all the beginner slopes, and “we’ll be on top of the mountain before long,” says Weinmiester, who has been working on the TSV snow crew for 24 years.
TSV draws its water directly from the Rio Hondo, and its only limitation on snowmaking is where they have piping and snow guns set up. Currently, they can cover all their beginner slopes and intermediate runs, and even a few expert slopes, like Zagava, Lower Inferno and Streetcar — in sum, about 400 acres.
Ski Santa Fe is limited in its capacity to the amount of water found its onsite storage tanks, which are replenished from the headwaters of the Rio en Medio creek. “Typically the crew will make snow in any one spot for up to 48 hours, and leave the snow in these huge piles to be spread later by the snow groomers,” said marketing director Candy Dejola. “We start at the bottom in the beginner areas and then move up the mountain. Our first priority is to get all the way up Midland to the summit of the quad chair.” The ski area can cover almost half of its terrain with man-made snow, basically all the terrain below Santa Fe Trail on the lower third of the mountain. “We will continue to make snow as conditions permit, but are ready to open within 48 hours if we get one significant snowfall — anything approaching two feet,” she said. She also notes that man-made snow is controversial because of the water it uses, but points out that it is not a consumptive use. “We’re not taking it away, rather just putting it to one use before it will eventually melt and move off downstream.” In fact, the argument can be made that ski areas serve as storage grounds for water that would otherwise flow away when people and wildlife have little use for it, and then release it in the spring when it is of most benefit.
As one man has observed about snowmaking: “Pray for snow, but thank God for snowmaking!”
Here are updates from around the region:
• Silverton Mountain, the little area that roars, has pushed its opening to Dec. 15. The unique ski area boasts 1,819 acres of all ungroomed backcountry terrain served by a single recycled double chair and a base area with no running water and an old bus buried in snow as a rental facility. It will offer unguided or guided operations daily Dec. 15-30 (excluding Christmas), then Jan. 3-6 and Jan. 10-13. The guided-only season will run Jan. 17March 31, Thursdays through Sundays. Because of its advanced nature, skiers and snowboarders are required to carry the essential backcountry gear every day. They can be rented on site. Silverton limits the number of skiers and riders, so reservations — especially during holidays — are suggested. Guided skiers should arrive by 8:15 a.m.
• Ski Santa Fe is now renting season-long ski and snowboard lockers in the newly expanded and renovated La Casa Day Lodge. Rentals began Dec. 3 on the area’s website. The lockers will run $300 with a $25 key/lock deposit. They are available on a first come first serve for Ski Santa Fe season pass holders only, with one locker per pass holder only.
Daniel Gibson of Santa Fe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.