No Business Like Snow Business

By Lynn Geiger

In theory, snowmaking sounds simple enough – turning water into small ice crystals.

But ask any northern Michigan snowmaker and it’s a fine balance of water pressure, horsepower, compressed air and mad math skills.

For the second year in a row, snow guns have geared up across the region with abundant early snowfall and consistently cold temperatures creating prime conditions and giving area ski resorts an early gift – opening days in November. Mother nature’s version of snow is preferred, but the flakes created from the multi-million dollar snowmaking systems can also be powerful economic machines for area ski resorts.

Snowmaking: The Economics Of It

Skiers and snowboarders only see snow guns on the mountains churning out snow, and groomers moving it around – the guts of the operation are below ground.

Ed Grice, president and general manager of Boyne described it this way: “If you were to take a bird’s eye view of Boyne Mountain with X-ray vision, you’d see two large pipes – one running up and one running down – on every slope. One carries water at 350 to 400 pounds of pressure and the other is pumping 80 pounds of air.”

Between powering the guns, pumping the water and producing the air, it costs $1,000 per hour to run 150 guns, according to Grice. Depending on weather, there is between 600 and 1,200 hours of snowmaking production annually.

The 2014/15 season marks Jim MacInnes’ 30th winter at Crystal Mountain.

“We have invested millions of dollars into our snowmaking over the years,” said MacInnes, the resort’s president and CEO. “It ties up a lot of capital. It’s like building a power plant for peak power days.”

But MacInnes doesn’t ponder that return on investment.

“In terms of ROI, we’re constantly reviewing the weak points in the system, putting in new pipes,” MacInnes said. “But if you don’t have snow and all your runs open, you’re not going to have customers. There’s a saying that once you’re in a business, you have “a tiger by the tail. We’re in the ski business – you’ve got to make snow.”

And snowmaking certainly isn’t what is used to be.

“There has been an evolution of snowmaking due to climate change,” said MacInnes. “The weather is more volatile, with shorter times to make snow. In the old days we had a few snow guns that we ran for longer. Now, we run short intervals with huge capacity.”

The ultimate goal for all the local resorts is to have 100 percent of their slopes open for the Christmas to New Year’s holiday break and in recent years that has been a challenge.

“Last year was an easier winter for the snowmakers,” said Pete Bigford, general manager and COO for Shanty. “Shutdowns due to warm weather were reduced, snow was plentiful, and colder temps resulted in fewer hours of snowmaking needed to keep the slopes firm and white.”

Last year Shanty made snow for 43 days, or a total of 760 hours.

“Without snowmaking, ski resorts wouldn’t have reliable conditions throughout our winter season,” said Bigford. “This is important because skiing/snowboarding, and related snow sports such as alpine tubing, can be our best business in a calendar year. It is impossible to sell out of lift tickets on a perfect bluebird day.”

Base, Base (Baby)

Each year, snowmaking crews at Crystal Mountain, Shanty Creek Resorts and Boyne are geared and ready to make snow come November 1. Getting a good snow base is critical for a successful and profitable season for area slopes.

Mike Cutler, mountain manager at Crystal in Thompsonville, has been making and grooming snow for nearly 20 years.

“It’s a department close to my heart,” Cutler said. “You can’t do much of anything else without snow.”

Boyne’s Grice is a bit more blunt about it.

“Without snowmaking, you’re sunk,” Grice said. “To us, it’s a pretty good insurance policy against Mother Nature.”

Lately, though, Mother Nature has been local snowmakers’ best friend. Early snow and cold – that settled in and never left – made for a snowmaking bonanza for the winter of 2013-14. A snowmaker knows things are good when snowmaking hours drop considerably come January. So far, this year looks to be a repeat performance.

With more than two feet of the natural stuff falling before Thanksgiving – and consistent cold temperatures for making snow – the building of the base this year is off to a fantastic start.

Note: It takes a lot of snow to make a solid base.

“You take that 24 inches of white fluffy stuff and you run a 6,000-pound grooming machine over it, it’s condensed to three or four inches,” explained Grice. “To have groomed surfaces, it takes more than Mother Nature is able to give out.”

In a typical year, northern Michigan receives 100 to 150 inches of snow.

“The rule is 10 inches of natural snow will groom out to one inch of base,” said Cutler.

The average base depth at area resorts is between 50 and 80 inches.

“No one gets 800 inches of natural snow,” he said. “Most of what you’re seeing is man-made.”

Snowmaking: The Science Behind It

Crystal Mountain has 91 skiable acres. When it runs its snowmaking at maximum capacity, it can produce enough snow to cover the entire area with one foot of snow every 40 hours – or think of it this way: coverage of 2.3 acre-feet with one foot of snow in one hour.

“The caveats are wind and windows of opportunity,” said Cutler. “You don’t just flip a switch. There is ramping up and down.”

Early winter can also bring unstable temperatures with it.

“When it’s 26 degrees at night and warm during the day … you hate to watch the money melt away,” he said.

For Shanty Creek and Schuss Mountain – two ski areas approximately three miles apart – conditions can be significantly different.

“Temps can vary by as much as three to four degrees during the early season due to the influences of Lake Bellaire and nearby Torch Lake, which adds humidity,” said Jon Pofahl, mountain manager at Shanty Creek Resorts.

“Humidity decreases favorable snowmaking conditions,” said Pofahl. “The drier the air, the better.”

That’s why snowmakers pay attention to “wet bulb” readings – a combination of actual air temperature and relative humidity – rather than air temperature alone.

“It’s also why it can be difficult to explain to our guests, who are anxious for the season to get started, why we may not be making snow when it’s 29 degrees out but the humidity is at 90 percent,” Pofahl added. “That makes it very difficult for water droplets to form into snow crystals.”

Is there anything particularly challenging to making snow in northern Michigan?

“The weather forecasts are not as stable as, say, Minnesota,” said Cutler. “They can see what’s coming, and there’s no big body of water. When we had nice cold temperatures last year, we were still 15 to 20 degrees warmer than Minnesota. Lake effect snow bands will hinder production. You just have to tolerate the unpredictability.”

However, technological advances have made it easier for an experienced snowmaker to optimize snowmaking conditions, noted Pofahl – from pinpointing the proper water droplet size from the nozzle to angling the snow guns to assure maximum “air time” before crystals fall to the ground.

“Even improvements in forecasting conditions, for example smartphone apps that provide wind direction and speed and hourly forecasts right there in your pocket, have made snowmaking an art, improving the process in the past 20 years,” he added.

But there is more to snowmaking than what actually hits the ground.

“When making snow, we make huge piles of it,” said Pofahl. “Then we let the snow “cure,” which allows the moisture to dissipate and strengthen the crystal. Then we use our groomers to push and spread the snow into the ski slope.”

While man-made snow is denser than natural snow, when made properly and allowed to “cure” before moving it, it becomes that “white corduroy” skiers and snowboarders love, according to Pofahl.

“Some say man-made snow is icy, but when you do it right most would never tell the difference,” he said.

So are there different types of man-made snow?

“For the most part with base snow, we’re all making the same stuff,” said Cutler.

Base snow needs to be wetter so it packs more easily. But as the season progresses, snowmakers add a lighter, drier “fairy dust” type snow to improve conditions.


The Early Days of Snowmaking

Did you know it was a Detroit native – a Studebaker dealer – who first brought snowmaking to the region? Everett Kirchner moved north to build a ski resort in the late 1940s, paying just $1 for the land necessary to begin development of today’s Boyne Mountain.

Among his many firsts at Boyne, Kircher began experimenting with snowmaking innovations in the 1950s and ultimately created the Duck Bill Snowmaker, described in Boyne’s history as “the first efficient snowmaker widely accepted as the standard for marginal temperature snowmaking” by mixing small amounts of air and electricity with large quantities of water.

That was just the beginning, though, of its proprietary snow guns. In the 1970s, the resort patented the Boyne Snowmaker (aka Highland Snow Gun).

Today, the resort uses Boyne Low-E fan guns, which are 30 percent more energy efficient than its previous guns. More than 250 of these guns are in operation at Boyne Mountain in Boyne Falls and Boyne Highlands in Harbor Springs.