From 71 Degrees to Open for Business in Five Days: This Is The Future of Skiing
How technology, experience, and willpower are future-proofing lift-served skiing
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It’s like growing corn in the wintertime but somehow they’re doing it man
It looked easy in the West. As easy as a hard thing can be. Weather systems marshaling off the Pacific and burning across the continent. The Sierras, Wasatch, Rockies all buried. Yes, the usuals: Arapahoe Basin popped open Oct. 23. Keystone hit “play” five days later. Winter Park on Halloween. Loveland three days after that. Wolf Creek opened Nov. 4 and reported 90 percent of the mountain live six days later. But surprises, too, in this deep early season: there was Kirkwood, firing on Nov. 12, 20 days earlier than scheduled. Sister resort Heavenly, also early, opened the same day. Mountain High – the Mountain High that hovers over Los Angeles – opened Nov. 10.
Meanwhile, on Nov. 5, exactly one year to the day after I’d been lapping Killington’s North Ridge Quad on the resort’s 2021-22 opening day, I was T-shirt tailgating at a New Jersey football game. When OpenSnow posted this graphic of western burials two days later, I was working on my patio in 77-degree temperatures, an all-time record for that date in New York City:
It hit 65 degrees that day in Killington, Vermont. The high temperature five days later, on Nov. 12, hit 71 degrees, the low, 48. The Women’s World Cup downhill, set for Thanksgiving weekend, loomed. Superstar, the 1,173-vertical-foot trail on which the course was to run, sat brown. Despair caterwauled across social media. Surely the event, and the rest of the Northeast early ski season, were doomed.
Five days later, Killington opened for the ski season. So did Sunday River, Maine. Sugarloaf opened the day after that, and Sugarbush and Stowe followed on Saturday, Nov. 19.
Those are some of the largest ski resorts in the region, seated in far northern New England, and their as-soon-as-possible openings surprised no one. More impressive, however, was New York State-owned Belleayre, seated just over two hours north of New York City, which opened the same day as Sugarloaf, beating most of New England to launch. Sister resort Gore also opened that day. Whiteface went live the following day, delivering its first-ever opening on the mountain’s full 3,166-foot vertical drop. Vail Resorts’ Hunter Mountain opened that day as well. Windham, five miles away (as the crow flies), opened Monday, Nov. 21. Further south, Bousquet, Massachusetts; Wisp, Maryland; and Massanutten, Virginia opened Nov. 25. In never-snowy Indiana, Perfect North opened Nov. 22, the mountain’s third-earliest opening in its 43-season history.
These ski areas are not anomalies. They did not get lucky. Their rapid openings under marginal conditions across vast and varied geographic regions are the direct result of yearslong investments in better and more efficient snowmaking. They are the best-case present, yes, showcases of the most technologically advanced snowmaking equipment. But they also represent the future. One in which ski area operators are not passive victims of climate change, but active combatants against it, making more snow than ever in spite of less-than-ideal conditions, and doing so with equipment that uses a fraction of the energy of previous generations of snowmaking machinery.
“Our snowmaking investments are certainly paying off and have been for the last several years,” said Windham Mountain President Chip Seamans. “We are committed to producing more quality snow in less time, both early season and in thaw-freeze cycles when timing is critical. We needed less than 48 hours in the cold-weather window we had to open significant terrain.”
Windham’s entire 1,600-foot vertical drop went live on opening day. “Additional automation is a huge factor,” Seamans explained. “Other improvements are high-efficiency guns, isolation valves, two booster pumps to aid water pressure on the upper mountain, pipe replacement, pump upgrades, and a glycol cooling system for air compressors that allows the water that was formerly used for cooling to be converted to greater gallons-per-minute to the mountain.”
While few of those technological details will be as obvious to skiers as the two new high-speed lifts that Windham has built in the past four years, the results will be. “Quality openings as soon as practical will be the norm for Windham,” said Seamans.
Windham, of course, is extremely well-capitalized, a regional destination and Ikon Pass partner that is next door to – and competes directly with – Vail Resorts’ Hunter Mountain. But the upgrade-and-activate template works just as well with smaller, community-oriented bumps. Bousquet, which three years ago was a struggling antique that often couldn’t open until January, completely rebuilt its snowmaking system under new owners. As a result, the ski area was able to crack open with just 50 total hours of snowmaking over six days.
“The system, designed by Ian Honey from SMI, enables us to make good snow at marginal temps: 26 Wet Bulb,” said Bousquet General Manager Kevin McMillan. “The fully auto super Polecats start up so quickly it makes sense for us to make snow in much smaller temp windows. At marginal temps, we’re pushing about 60,000 gallons per hour, good temps 190,000 gallons per hour. It’s a new system, with all new pipe and pumphouse, so we’re not hampered by the usual start-up headaches.”
Bousquet’s rapid opening was not a complete victory: the skiable footprint was small, and the mountain has subsequently had to close down after successive rainstorms pounded New England.
But surrendering to the rain is not inevitable. Perhaps the most improbable get-open-and-stay-open outfit in the country is Perfect North. The ski area’s base sits at just 400 feet. Of the 108 operating Midwest ski areas, only two sit farther south (Vail-owned Paoli Peaks, Indiana and Hidden Valley, Missouri). And yet, the ski area opened on just four partial days of snowmaking, which Perfect North General Manager Jonathan Davis characterized as “two mediocre nights, one fantastic night, and one good night.” Despite having just six additional snowmaking windows since, the ski area now sits at just over 50 percent open.
Davis credits a few factors for this quick ramp-up: a 12,000-gallon-per-minute pumphouse feeding 260 snowguns, a seat on a valley floor that traps cold air, and institutional knowledge that can often predict snowmaking windows that the local weather forecasters miss.
“You can’t overvalue institutional knowledge and these guys (and gal) have it,” Davis says, noting that the average tenure on his team is about 15 years. “They know the hill, the guns, the weather trends, the unique weather ecosystem. They know the science, they perfect the art, and they sprinkle in just enough religion to make magic happen. I can’t say enough good things about our crew.”
Part of modern resorts’ willingness to blow some snow that they know will melt is the efficiency of current snowmaking technology, which can produce far more snow with far less energy than previous generations of equipment required. In New York, the three state-owned ski areas – Belleayre, Gore, and Whiteface – have invested millions into snowmaking upgrades over the past decade, including automation technology, piping, snow guns, pumps, and compressor replacements.
“With this renewed infrastructure, ORDA is now achieving greater efficiency in snowmaking with less energy,” said Darcy Norfolk, director of communications for the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA), which operates all three ski areas. “These changes decrease not only the energy costs associated with snowmaking, but also the time and labor required. In turn, this improves our ability to open more trails earlier in the season. High-efficiency snowmaking, alongside solar arrays, hybrid groomers, LED technology, and other improvements, are examples of improvements aimed at sustainability and mitigating climate-change impacts to save winter.”
All three ski areas have continued to open additional terrain, despite challenging weather that has delayed openings at less well-capitalized ski areas (ORDA operates on considerable taxpayer subsidies, a source of bitterness among New York’s dozens of family-owned ski areas, who must operate at a profit while subsidizing their competitors through their taxes).
No matter how much a ski area invests in upgrading its snowmaking plant, planning and willpower – two factors as old as humanity – continue to matter nearly as much.
“We work hard enough that we make our own luck,” said Davis, the GM at Perfect North, who also noted that the ski area opened its tubing operation on its earliest date ever. “When we see cold temps near season opening, we evaluate the duration of the cold and what kind of weather is behind it. Is it enough to get us open? Does the weather support us being able to stay open? Does the long-term look favorable to continue building our base? We’re ready every year for a Thanksgiving opening. If it comes sooner, it’s like extra credit on the test and we make it happen.”
That formula seems consistent across more southern ski areas. “A determination was made months ago that we would make snow in November and as early as possible, with the goal of opening the day after Thanksgiving,” said Wisp General Manager Ron Hawkes. “Each department planned and prepared as such - the snowmaking team was ready, had a successful initial start-up, and executed all priorities and tasks and at a high level. We took advantage of every snowmaking opportunity, even during marginal conditions when production is less than ideal, and the cost to do so is greater.”
The resort opened with eight runs and eight snow-tubing lanes. And while several optimal-temperature windows helped – particularly at night – the resort still had to contend with what Hawkes characterized as “overall high humidity.” Technology and investment, again, were key factors in the early start.
“Stepping up the capital investments and overall commitment to repairs and maintenance for snowmaking and grooming has proved to positively impact the amount of snow that can be made and how quickly we can open,” Hawkes said.
Far more ski areas remain closed than open east of the Mississippi, of course. But the ski areas highlighted here are portraits of what their less-developed competitors could become. Snowmaking infrastructure is not like chairlifts, which can run into the tens of millions of dollars and will forever remain unattainable for smaller operators. Even most backwoods joints can afford snowmaking upgrades with some planning and patience. And many states offer ski areas tax credits or deductions to upgrade to more-efficient snowguns.
Last week, I hosted Joe VanderKelen, President of SMI, the largest U.S.-based snowmaking equipment manufacturer, on the podcast. We spoke at length about the technology upgrades that have enabled these aggressive openings while pushing skiing toward a more energy-efficient and sustainable future. Subscribe below to get that as soon as it drops.
Below the paid subscriber jump: a bargain new multi-mountain pass (or two), Jay Peak reciprocals announced, Homewood does something stupid, a ski area salvage deal collapses, where Bohemia’s frontside lift will move to, and much more.