Did Ski Ward, Massachusetts' October Opening Just Redefine Early-Season Skiing?
The $600,000 snow machine that is resetting the boundaries of winter
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It cost $600,000. It’s the size of a shipping container. In an August test run, it cranked out a six-foot-tall pile of snow in 83-degree weather.
It’s the L60 snowmaking machine from Quebec-based Latitude 90. And it just helped Ski Ward, Massachusetts beat every other ski area in North America to open for the 2023-24 ski season.
The skiing wasn’t much. A few feet of base a few hundred feet long, served by a carpet lift. Ski Ward stapled the novelty to its fall festival, a kitschy New England kiddie-fest with “a petting zoo, pony rides, kids crafts, pumpkin painting, summer tubing, bounce houses … and more.” Lift tickets cost $5.
The turns lasted one day. Ski Ward will open for the season on Nov. 1, with three-week children’s beginner programs running Wednesday through Sunday. The goal this first season, says Ski Ward Operations Manager Mikey LaCroix, is to expand access to the mountain’s multi-day lesson programs, which had a “massive wait list” for the past two winters. LaCroix anticipates that some open-ski access will be available to the general public, though he cautions that the carpet-served beginner area will be the only available terrain.
Latitude 90 had introduced the team to its technology in 2022, but “we didn’t know if it would be applicable,” LaCroix said in an interview with The Storm. “But then we were sitting here Christmas week last year when it was 53 degrees and raining, and watching our snow melt, and we were like, ‘Wow, maybe we should go check one out,’” A trip to Pennsylvania, where the team witnessed an L60 “running in the exact same conditions, and they had almost their whole entire hill covered,” LaCroix said, sold the machine.
Latitude 90 delivered the unit in August, and Ski Ward started snowmaking on October 1, blowing a several-hundred-foot-long base that measured between two and six feet deep when I spoke to LaCroix last week. It kept going “pretty much around the clock,” LaCroix said, in spite of temperatures that crept into the 80s some days. The unit is stationary, but can shoot snow up to 300 feet. Snowcats spread the snow around, and a tarp helps preserve snow on sunnier days.
LaCroix envisions buying a second L60 to sit on Ski Ward’s summit. “We would love to have as many of these units as possible,” he says. Given the expense of the machines, however, it is unlikely that they will replace the ski area’s existing snowmaking plant altogether.
“It's really going to work great in partnership with our conventional snowmaking,” LaCroix said. “Because all that snow and water that we'd normally be using on our beginner hill, that's all snow and water that we're going to be able to put elsewhere on the hill during real startup,”
While LaCroix declined to comment on the specific mechanics of the machine, citing Latitude 90 trade secrets, he hopes the L60 can act as a stabilizing force in an increasingly unpredictable weather world.
“The strategy is to be able to guarantee snow at any temperature or any weather event because over the years we've all seen, we're getting less snow and warmer temperatures and it’s harder to make snow,” said LaCroix, whose family has owned Ski Ward since 1990. “It's been our company's policy every year since our inception to reinvest in snowmaking every year. We have some of the best snowmaking equipment in the world, but it doesn't do you any good if it's not below 32 degrees. So the thing that we can accomplish with this machine is that we can guarantee that our teaching hills and high-traffic areas will be covered at all times, especially when the season starts.”
The L60 does not make Ski Ward impervious to the laws of physics. The ski area postponed a rail jam scheduled for today to Nov. 11 “due to extremely high temperatures,” according to a post on Ski Ward’s Facebook page. While the snow hasn’t melted out, “we have to preserve snow for our lesson programs starting on the 1st,” reads another post.
So what, Brah?
Arapahoe Basin, Colorado, base elevation 10,520 feet, opens for the season tomorrow. The date collides with a Rocky Mountain roller, booming over the Continental Divide and forecast to drop up to 16 inches of snow. That may be more pow than Ski Ward counts this whole season. The Brobots will insist that A-Basin’s open is the “real” start to the 2023-24 winter, just as they did last year in refusing to accept that a trio of Midwest ski areas (Andes Tower Hills and Wild Mountain in Minnesota and Trollhaugen in Wisconsin), had beaten Colorado to go.
But they miss the point. Just about every cold-weather city in America is encircled by Ski Wards, 200- to 300-foot bumps swarming, for the entirety of their short seasons, with a mass of adolescent energy. Nearly all of them suffer from low elevation, low snowfall, and shortening winters. They could all use an L60, or, if they’re so equipped, its beastly double-decker grandpop, the L120, an industrial-scale glacier-maker that can fling snow nearly 1,000 feet.
If Ski Ward and Alpine Valley, Michigan and Snow Trails, Ohio and Little Switzerland, Wisconsin and, God help us, Vail’s atrociously dysfunctional Paoli Peaks, Indiana, and the dozens of other ski areas like them can extend their seasons by three or four or six or eight weeks, that could reinforce their core business for a generation. These ski areas are, typically, only open for 10 to 14 weeks. Their clientele are kids tumbling off buses, adult beer-leaguers, college students on a lark. It doesn’t take a lot of terrain to entertain these crews. And it doesn’t take a lot of these Latitude 90 machines to reinforce a small ski area in a meaningful way.
The obstacle, of course, will be that gigantic pricetag. But unlike chairlifts, which continue to explode in price as the cost of labor and raw materials increase, Latitude 90’s machines are relatively compact marvels of technology, the price of which tends to decrease over time as manufacturers reach economies of scale and discount older products in favor of ever-better models. I wasn’t able to coordinate an interview with a Latitude 90 executive prior to publishing this story, but I’ll be tracking the potential of warm-weather snowmaking closely.
Below the paid subscriber jump: a Colorado expansion plan, an eastern ski area surrenders, a long-lost New England mountain for sale, about a million new trailmaps, and much more.