Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Thank Goodness for the Snow Miser

I'm pretty sure there are two kinds of people in this world: those who love snow, and those who don't. Lucky for me, since I live in Northern New Hampshire, I count myself among those who check multiple weather outlets looking to see which forecast is going to offer me hope for the highest totals, whose stomach is filled with giddy butterflies at the prospect of a big Nor'Easter, and who jumps up out of bed in the morning to look out the window and check for snowfall like a kid hoping school will be cancelled so I can romp in the powder all day long.

But as everyone knows, Mother Nature has been a fickle friend this winter. We had some beautiful snow for major holidays this season: Halloween's storm seemed a bit premature, but offered inspiration for those of us hoping for a short brown season; Thanksgiving brought another few inches as we geared up for the opening of the ski areas, and we did in fact have that white Christmas we'd been dreaming of. But in the interim, we've had major warm spells, rain, ice, and freezing cold. Unfortunately the cold and the precipitation seem to be on opposite schedules. What we really need is for the cold and the water to get together.

Enter a skier and rider's best friend on a winter like this: The Snowmaker. Like a matchmaker for those natural elements that haven't been playing nicely together, he or she orchestrates a rendezvous of just the right amount of air pressure and water depending on the temperature at a given point on the mountain to create a wonderful chemistry between those elements that results in nothing less than piles and piles of snow for us to ski on from November to April.

Bretton Woods' Head Maker of Snow is Keith Huntoon, a.k.a. the Snow Miser. You know, the guy who causes objects to burst into snowflakes with a touch, from that stop-motion animation movie The Year Without Santa Claus?

I'm Mister Snow
I'm Mister Icicle
I'm Mister Ten Below
Friends call me Snow Miser
What ever I touch
Turns to snow in my clutch
I'm too much!...

Keith very graciously took some time away from his creation of white gold to speak with me about what goes in to making skiing and riding possible when the natural stuff doesn't fall.

Keith has been at this game of helping Mother Nature along for 32 years, and he has seen everything she could possibly throw at us. I like to think of snow as a guarantee here, but he reminded me that this is, after all, New England, and nothing is a sure bet. "Sure, last year we had plenty of snow. But a few years ago we couldn't even ride snow machines until February."

"We spend a lot of time watching the weather," he said. They've got thermometers all over the mountain, since the temperature, wind, and pressure can vary so much depending on elevation. The Weather Bug, located at the Latitude 44 mid-mountain restaurant, tracks wind speed and humidity. "28 or 29 degrees Fahrenheit is what I'm looking for. At 32 it's too warm to make snow," because the process of making the snow creates some heat in itself.

The relative humidity is a key factor in determining the ability to make snow. The "wet bulb" temperature as described on How Stuff Works, is "a function of the dry bulb temperature and the relative humidity, the amount of water vapor in the air. Liquid or solid water cools itself by evaporating some water as water vapor. This releases heat, and so lowers the energy level in the water. When there is more water vapor in the atmosphere, water or snow can't evaporate as much because the air is already saturated with water to a high degree. Consequently, water cools more slowly when the humidity is high, and more quickly when the humidity is low.

In addition to the temperature and humidity factors, snow makers use air compressors to force air and water together. Early in the season, they blow wetter snow as a base, so that when it freezes up it'll have some holding power through the winter. For that they use more water in thegun and less air. Because the air compressors that power the snow guns only have a finite amount of pressure to be used at any given time, when they use less air, they out can put more guns.

Bretton Woods uses two kinds of snow guns: tower guns and land guns. Tower guns can only take 100 cubic feet per minute (cfm), so they don’twork in higher temps as well, and if it is windy, the snow direction isn’t aseasy to control. 25 new Ratnik landguns the resort purchased this season compliment 25 new guns from last year.

The snow makers also have to be strategic about where they decide to blow snow. They usually start making piles or "whales" of snow on the run that is most easily accessible from the chairlift. (The whales then get smoothed out by the groomers, but that's another post...) They also want to open terrain that is skiable for most skiers and riders, so in addition to a blue or green trail, they'll also be sure to build up a base on the bunny hill, so brand new skiers like my little ones can get out onto the slopes right away. From there, they try to open up terrain that will begin to disperse skiers and riders onto separate trails and lifts, so that we're not all on top of each other. At Bretton Woods, they start with trails beneath the Bethlehem Express Quad, then down to the Rosebrook Quad, over to the Fabyan's Express Triple, the Zephyr Quad, and finally they are making their way over to West Mountain.

In addition to all of the complicated and precise science and engineering that goes in to enabling our skiing habit, there's also a lot of hard hours of work in tough conditions. Although we love soft snow to ski on, most people don't really want to ski under the snow guns, so they do their best to blow most of the snow at night, which means there are guys out there in the coldest, darkest hours lugging guns and hoses around the mountain on snow machines and on foot, while we're all snuggled up at home dreaming of plush corduroy. (By the way, skiing under the guns may be a little cold, but there's often some very fun snow to ski on in there!)

I especially noticed the need for snow making this season when I realized that as we were starting two year-old Timmy onto the slopes in earnest, there wasn't any snow under the magic carpets. So although I would have probably had him spend more time on the very gentle slope off those moving sidewalks, we had to graduate right away to learning how to get on and off the lift and the longer run of the bunny hill. (I think he actually preferred this, being the second child whose main goal in life is often keeping up with his older sister.)

So be sure to thank a snow maker the next time you are at your favorite ski area. They work long hours to make following our passion of skiing possible. They spend all summer getting all the systems in place, but there's only a small window of time to actually get that snow through the pipes, and in winters like this, the ski industry depends on that snow.

And remember that there are two kind of people in the world? Well, guess what Keith’s wife, my friend Jenn’s, license plate reads? HEATMZR


  1. Great post - would have loved to see a photo of this SNOWMZR, hear he drives a red car. And yes, we all are thinking snow - love it or hate it - we are waiting for it.

    Keep writing Martha - we look forward to every post.

  2. Thanks, Sharon! That SNOWMZR is an illusive guy!

  3. I'll never forget one long-ago Christmas morn'...we were getting in a few runs before heading to work at the Basin. Mother Nature was having a temperamental winter that year, but thanks to Killington's snowmaking team, the skiing that morning was great.

    As we skied back to our car, walking towards us on the trail was a line of 6-8 red-clad snowmakers...we shouted our thanks as we slid by, then I turned to Chris & said "Santa came to Killington last night, dressed as a snowmaker."

    Here's praying Mother Nature's mood turns white, white, white very soon.

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