Inside as many as 100 snowmaking guns at Heavenly Ski Resort, compressed air and water are at work, breaking down the liquid into smaller particles and launching them out into the air.
The small water particles freeze easier than water normally would, and before the drops hit the ground they are surrounded by a crystallized, frozen layer. The particles pile up on the ski resort’s runs and, given a little time, they freeze inside and out – creating artificial snow.
That process is happening at Heavenly on a grand scale, giving the 82-run, 27-lift resort the ability to be one of only a few area resorts to be open now.
“We’re definitely the biggest snowmaking system in the West. Depending on how you figure it, we’re one of the largest anywhere. There are some big systems back East, but we’re still one of the biggest,” said Jim Larmore, who has been Heavenly’s snowmaking manager for 13 years. “If you added up all the ones around the basin, or even close to Tahoe, they wouldn’t even come close to ours.”
In Nevada and California, Heavenly has 4,800 acres of skiable terrain. Heavenly can make snow on about 70 percent of it.
The last five winters have provided above-average snow to the region. There have been drought years in the past, however, where Heavenly’s ability to stay open hinged almost entirely on its snowmaking.
What this season holds for Tahoe’s snowpack remains to be seen. It’s been a little light so far.
While only a few storms have hit the region, never dropping more than 10 inches on the basin’s highest peaks, Heavenly has been able to have one run – Patsy’s – open since Nov. 12. Maggie’s run will probably be open this weekend, and others should be ready by Thanksgiving.
“There will be 3,000 to 4,000 skiers coming here for Thanksgiving,” Larmore said. “There’s nothing worse than a skier coming to the ticket booth and you can’t sell them a ticket because you’re closed.”
Heavenly’s snowmaking system consists of a 50-million gallon reservoir on the Nevada side, a 5-million gallon one in California, four pump houses filled with equipment, underground and above-ground piping all over the resort and 100 guns which are moved all over the mountain and hooked up to 850 hydrants.
A crew of about 30 people – working long hours, day and night – are responsible for the snowmaking so far. As the season moves forward, more people probably will be hired.
Snowmaking won’t end once Mother Nature blankets the region with white stuff.
“Heavenly has a lot of traffic. They ski the snow off,” he said. “We’re always in a maintenance mode, putting the mountain back together.”
Snowmakers use what they call the “wet bulb” – a number reached by calculating the temperature and the humidity – to determine whether they can make snow. A wet bulb at least as low as 28 is needed. That could be reached with 100-percent humidity and a temperature of 28 degrees. It’s possible to make snow when it’s warmer if the humidity is less.
The colder it is, the more water they can put through the system.
Heavenly has the capacity to push 8,000 gallons a minute out of its guns.
“If you have a big swimming pool, basically we’re emptying that thing about four times in a minute,” said Barrett Burghard, assistant manager of snowmaking.
Burghard, who started working at Heavenly 13 years ago as an entry-level snowmaker, said the workers enjoy the job. About two-thirds of last year’s crew is back this year.
The crews work in the cold, and they often get soaking wet from the showering-down snow they make. Trailers are set up at various places on the resort where the snowmakers can take breaks, drinking coffee or hot chocolate and wiping frost off their faces or icicles from their beards.
“I enjoy it. I must; I’ve been here a long time,” Burghard said. “I like the people I work with. We’ve got a good group of guys. Most of the guys wouldn’t want to do any other job here. I know I wouldn’t.”
“If you like to work outside, it’s not a bad job,” Larmore said. “We’re like the roughnecks of the company, so to speak. We’re outside with the elements. But I’ll tell you this: When the sun comes over the mountain in the morning, it’s gorgeous. You can’t beat it.”