Behind the Scenes - How Snowmaking at Ski Resorts Works
Ski resorts make snow because Mother Nature is unpredictable and is usually late delivering natural snow.
How Nature Does It
"Real" snow produced by Mother Nature starts as water vapour in the atmosphere. As temperatures cool, the water vapour condenses into tiny drops, or if it's cold enough, as tiny ice crystals. When enough ice crystals collect together, they become heavy enough to fall toward the earth. If the air is cold enough all the way to the ground, we see the collected crystals as snowflakes. If it's warm, the crystals melt, and we get rain. Seems simple, right? Not quite.
How Snowmaking Does It
Man made or ‘artificial’ snow is essentially the same as the natural snow that falls from the sky. Man-made snow is usually made very dense, having about 35% water content as compared to natural snow that usually has only about 5% to 15% water volume.
Calabogie Peaks’ Equipment
There are two types of systems to make snow – each system uses an "air gun".
Air guns mix compressed air with water at the end of a long tube with a small nozzle that atomizes the water into particles small enough to freeze quickly.
Advanced snowmaking systems use high technology ‘fan guns’. Beginning 2009, Calabogie Peaks made a major capital commitment to purchase, install and customize a state of the art fan gun snowmaking system tailored to the unique microclimate of Calabogie and Dickson Mountain.
Fan guns look like large jet engines – they have spinning blades that push an air stream into which small particles of water are sprayed by dozens of tiny nozzles. The water that is ejected from the spray nozzles is nucleated with a central six-jet nucleator nozzle. Fan guns create a jet stream of snow that travels more than 100 feet through the air. This high velocity ‘throw’ results in ‘maximum hang time’ and creates a superb light snow that best resembles what Mother Nature provides.
Calabogie Peaks operates 35 SMI patented Pole Cat fan guns and 25 SMI patented air guns. This is the largest and most powerful snowmaking system in eastern Ontario and western Quebec. Some of the guns are mounted on towers, from 6 to 20 feet high. Tower mounted guns produce more snow than ground guns because of the additional “hang time” for the water particles to freeze before they hit the ground.
Each type of gun can produce an amazing amount of snow in good conditions (5% to 20% humidity and 10° to 20° F), much faster than Mother Nature. The new high tech fan guns are the ‘super producers’, and can make three times the amount of snow than an air gun.
- A air gun can convert about 60 gallons per minute (gpm) into snow
- A fan gun can convert 150 gpm in those conditions. If a fan gun is left unmoved in these conditions, it will make several feet in front of it in a few hours and literally bury itself in snow
Calabogie Peaks’ fleet of fan guns is a competitive advantage. As soon as we have the weather, temperature, air pressure, wind direction and humidity, we blow snow like crazy. In normal snowmaking conditions we can open a run in about 48 hours of snowmaking over bare ground. At the start of the season, we typically open several runs after a couple of days and nights of snowmaking, and open still more soon after that.
Calabogie piloted an experimental automated snowmaking system in 2012. Snowmaking automation is new industry trend – very few mountains operate automated snowmaking systems. Automation allows computers to monitor the micro climate and then control machines to turn the snowmaking system on and off quickly in response to changes in weather. This allows the mountain to make snow in shorter weather windows.
The typical "manual" start up of a snowmaking system can take hours. The fan guns need to be placed into position and hooked up to the water and electric networks. Once the right temperatures arrive, the snowmaking crew turns on the water pumps, primes the 10+ mile pipeline system and gets water racing through the pipes under pressures that range from 650 psi to 300 psi. Since this set up is a multi hour process, narrow windows of snowmaking weather cannot be used to make snow. With automation, set up time is reduced and the system can turn on with little advance set up. Automation expands the time in which Calabogie can make snow – which means more snow and better skiing and riding.
Automation remains a science in development. As part of Calabogie's commitment to operating the leading snowmaking system in eastern ON and western QU, we will continue to invest in automation and stay at the forefront of snowmaking technology. Automation will enhance our snow conditions and reinforce Calabogie’s reputation for the best snow conditions in the region.
Calabogie Lake provides an unlimited water source for the Peak’s large scale snowmaking system. Water is pumped from the lake into two multi-million gallon reservoirs that store water for periods of heavy production when the line from the lake can’t flow enough water to serve peak demand. This lake water supply is another unique Calabogie Peaks strength. Other resorts struggle to source adequate water supply and typically rely on limited amounts of on-site well water.
The Peaks uses multiple pumps to push water up the mountain at 2,000 + GPM from the 2 reservoirs. This is enough water to fill the indoor swimming pool at the Resort's Hotel in less than 30 seconds.
Water is pumped up the mountain at high pressure through over 50,000 feet of steel pipeline that crisscrosses the mountain along the sides of the ski trails, the Terrain Parks, the freestyle terrain – in total, more than 75 acres of ski able terrain. The fan guns are connected to the water distribution system at any one of 200+ hydrants located along the pipeline.
Snowmaking Quality Controls
Early in the season, snow is made wetter to provide a solid base that prevents skiers and boarders from scraping it off to the bare ground below. But one of the biggest mistakes is to allow a gun to run too wet, which makes slush instead of snow, which then freezes into ice – highly undesirable from a skier’s or snowboarder’s standpoint.
The consistency of the snow is controlled by adjusting the amount of water that is allowed to mix with the compressed air or the fan gun air stream. Calabogie Peaks’ snowmakers are very conscious of snow quality. Once a base of 1 to 2 feet is put down, lighter snow is made to make the best possible conditions.
Snowmaking is an acquired skill over many years – you can’t learn it in a classroom or even in a few seasons. Snowmakers constantly measure key meteorological factors including humidity, wind speed and direction, air pressure, and the temperature of the water being used to make the snow.
Snowmakers apprentice on the mountain and learn how to adjust the equipment to the key factors and the local micro climate. The most experienced and talented snowmakers have multiple trade skills including electrical, plumbing, millwright, computers and engineering. And, they are also expert heavy equipment operators. Transporting one-ton fan guns on steep terrain is very challenging and dangerous – it takes many years of experience to master this delicate balance. Snowmaking requires a broad base of skills, all of which must be used under tough conditions.
The snowmaking team at Calabogie collectively has over 100 years of operating experience. With these resources - Calabogie pushes the art of snowmaking to its limits.
Pushing and tilling the man-made snow with the snow groomers is an important element in providing good skiing. The snowmaking guns are moved frequently because they produce so much snow in a short period of time. The snow piles that accumulate in front of a fan gun are called ‘whales’. After a period of snowmaking, the whales can be as big as a small bus and reach depths of 10’, covering large sections of trail. The snow groomers break the whales apart and plough the snow flat into smooth trail curvature. The art of breaking whales, bulldozing and ploughing snow is called ‘blading’.
Blading is a unique skill required at mountains that use fan guns. By contrast, air guns do not create such large deposits of snow in one location.
After the new snow is spread evenly, the surface is ‘groomed’ with a tiller on the back of the snow groomer. The hydraulic tiller is a grinder that pulverizes the top 3 to 6 inches of the snow to give it the ideal texture for skiing or boarding. The groomers play a critical link in the conversion of raw snow whales into pristine ski able terrain. Fresh man-made snow is always groomed into a consistently good surface prior to opening.
To get the trails just right, the Peaks has a fleet of five groomers. The 2 lead machines are Piston Bully's made by Kässbohrer and equipped with state of the art Mercedes diesels. These lead machines blade and groom surface the trails. The other 3 fleet of groomers – an LMC and two Bombardiers – are the workhorses that transport the 1-ton fan guns all over the mountain. They can also be used for grooming.
What This All Means for the Skier
The result? The best snowmaking in eastern Ontario and western Quebec!
- Investment – over $2M to date
- One of the largest snowmaking systems in eastern Canada
- 100% snowmaking coverage
- Full production requires temperatures below –6ºC
- Over 10 miles of steel pipe
- 2 reservoirs (5 million + gallon capacity in total)
- Calabogie Lake – unlimited water supply
- 60 SMI Pole Cat, Super Pole Cat and Viking fan guns
- 4 water pumps – 800+ HP
- Typical season represents 600 hours of snowmaking operation
- Earlier season starts
- Later season closes
- No ice
- Consistency of conditions
- Machine-made snow is more resilient than natural snow and its holds up better against skier traffic “wear and tear”
- Insurance” against poor seasonal weather
- Ability to rebound from thaws within 24-48 hours after cold temperatures return
- More of it survives a thaw
- Lasts much longer into the spring
- Machine-made snow is more dense, and once it's groomed into a packed powder surface, feels every bit as good to a skier or snowboarder