SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
Mother Nature is notoriously fickle. To add a dash of predictability, Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort relies on the efforts of a hardy bunch who coat the slopes with an early-season dusting. They are the snowmakers.
“We work behind the scenes,” said Josh Hamill, manager of mountain operations. “It can be a grueling job.”
In addition to braving howling gales and temperatures that drop into the single digits, many snowmakers become nocturnal, too.
Several of the 17-member crew keep a conventional schedule, prepping the machinery and making repairs by day, but most spend their waking hours in the dark, using headlamps and the moon to see.
“It takes some time for the body clock to recalibrate and get into a rhythm, so typically the snowmakers keep the same shift all season,” said Mike McCormack, senior vice president of mountain operations now in his 32nd season at DMR.
The snowmaking infrastructure was first installed in 1982, so McCormack has seen it develop from humble beginnings.
“We have expanded the scope significantly,” he said.
Hamill described the atmosphere as otherworldly.
“It’s a 12-hour graveyard shift, 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.,” he said. “It’s a challenge, but you see some pretty amazing things out there at night. It’s like being on another planet. We’ve got these extremely bright LED headlamps. You’ll see a beam of light moving around on the ski trail in one direction, and then another beam some distance away.
“We definitely have the place to ourselves,” he said.
The job requires self-discipline and a clear head.
“When someone applies, I remind them it is strenuous, cold, dark work. I remind them they need to adapt their lifestyle to the job,” McCormack said. “They can’t keep a normal daytime routine and expect to function at 100 percent. It’s crucial to be aware and alert. They are dealing with high-pressure situations and low visibility.”
Some snow-blowers discover, fairly quickly, they aren’t cut out for long nights in the cold and move on to something else. Others are right at home, gladly returning year after year.
Quick on the draw
The snow guns, and people who operate them, are crucial for the mountain to be ready on time. This year the grand opening is slated for Black Friday, weather permitting.
“The system allows us an early-season start. We deposit snow in areas that see lots of sunshine and high traffic, like the base area and terrain park, so they can withstand the wear and tear,” McCormack said.
The snow guns can cover approximately 30 percent of DMR’s terrain.
Snowmaking season normally lasts two months – November and December – but the exact dates are flexible. On a stubbornly dry year when the weather offers no help, the machines can continue into February. A prolonged season is far from ideal, though, economically and mentally.
“It’s kind of miserable making snow for four months, to be honest,” Hamill said. “Not to mention expensive. You budget electricity costs for two months, so to double it is costly.”
Fine-tuning the inputs
To seasoned hands, snowmaking becomes an intuitive art form. But precise science undergirds the process.
Snowmakers use a metric called the “wet bulb” – a composite of ambient temperature and relative humidity – to determine the ratio of water to air that gets fed into the snow guns. Optimal conditions for efficiency and snow texture are 10 degrees Fahrenheit and low humidity. The “magic number” is a wet bulb of 27, McCormack said.
Across U.S. Highway 550, a reservoir serves as DMR’s water source. The water collects in a pump house and is propelled under the road and uphill into storage hydrants scattered across the mountain. Nearby, a compression station keeps air pressurized and ready. Once snowmakers calculate how much water to use (the air always stays constant), the two inputs converge inside the snow gun’s chamber and are blown by a giant fan into the night sky. Sometimes a nucleating agent is added to help the mixture stick.
“It’s like cloud seeding, … You’re giving the water molecules a particulate to adhere to. In marginal conditions, additives are helpful,” McCormack said.
Another way to modify the “product” (as crew members refer to snow) is to adjust the loft. As the mercury in the thermometer inches higher, snow guns are tilted so the water vapor falls along a gentler trajectory.
“The more time in the air, the longer for ice crystals to bond. With colder temperatures, it can nosedive down to the ground because crystallization happens quicker,” McCormack said.
The job isn’t over when the new snow lands. Far from settling into a pristine, even layer, which McCormack said most people assume, it accumulates in large piles the snowmakers call “whales.” Then it sits for a while to “leech out and cure,” meaning the excess moisture evaporates.
“When the snowcats arrive to churn the snow, it’s a drier product, not a blade full of mush,” McCormack said. “They push it around, like topsoil, to the right places. Then it gets smoothed into a corduroy pattern.
“We’re snow farmers. It’s the business we’re in. It needs to be tended and managed,” he said.
Indispensable as the snowmakers are, the machines always are intended to be a supplement to natural snow. The dry start to this season has DMR management feeling a little edgy. They’ll be watching the forecast closely.
“All it takes is one good storm in the San Juan Mountains, and we’re in business,” McCormack said.