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Purgatory finds the right temps to fire up new snow guns

A good night of snowmaking allows resort to move opening day (again) to Saturday
Josh Hamill, slopes manager with Purgatory Resort, checks on the quality of snow being made Thursday with the newest technology in snowmaking machines at the resort. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Purgatory Resort’s snowmaking crews caught a break this week, getting the cold weather needed to prime the slopes for this weekend’s opening day.

“Woo! We pulled it off last night, dude,” said Slopes Manager Josh Hamill on Thursday morning. “It’s a Christmas miracle.”

The snowmaking crew had such a fruitful night Wednesday that the resort decided it would go back to its original plan of opening on Saturday after announcing earlier this week it would postpone opening day until Sunday.

After a productive night of snowmaking, Purgatory Resort’s Slopes Manager Josh Hamill takes off in a snow grooming machine. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Since Purgatory’s snowmaking season began about a month ago, the weather has often been too warm to make snow.

“We’ve only had about 10 good snowmaking days in the past 30 days,” Hamill said. “It’s been a challenging start. We’ve had shorter windows, and temps haven’t been as cooperative.”

Combating the temperature challenge for snowmaking this fall is new technology that allows snowmakers to get to work as soon as conditions are perfect.

“With some upgraded snow guns and some newer technology, we’re able to push the limits and be creative,” Hamill said.

Purgatory’s new TR10 snow cannons allow for nearly double the snowmaking capacity the resort used to have. The snow cannons are also much more energy efficient, Hamill said.

Josh Hamill, slopes manager with Purgatory Resort, checks out one of the resort’s new TR10 snow cannons. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“You don’t even have to touch them. You set them up and leave,” he said. “We program a service temp in there, so when it hits 27 degrees Fahrenheit, it lets our pump house know, and he gets on the computer and hits start.”

Hamill can even turn the new snow cannons on and off with an app on his cellphone.

On Wednesday night, each TR10 snow cannon was producing 85 gallons of snow per minute, Hamill said.

Perfect conditions for snowmaking are 10 degrees Fahrenheit, 10% humidity, and no wind or clouds, he said.

“Once we start to get below 10 degrees Fahrenheit, things freeze really fast and it can start to get challenging,” he said.

Josh Hamill, slopes manager with Purgatory Resort, tracks through freshly made snow after an exceptional night of snowmaking Wednesday. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

When temperatures are perfect, Purgatory’s snow guns are pumping 1,800 to 2,300 gallons of water a minute for snowmaking.

The water Purgatory uses for snowmaking comes from a mixture of snowmelt that collects in a 200-million-gallon pond across from the resort, and water from the Cascade Creek.

Hamill said the snow that his crew makes is the equivalent of backfill, only setting up a foundation for fresh powder.

“Our snowmaking system is more filled in voids,” he said. “It’s about getting a nice solid base that’s going to last through the season.

“This time of the year is both very exciting and very stressful for snowmakers,” he said.

Hamill said snowmaking is an extremely dangerous job, likening the amount of risk involved to being a crab fisherman.

“Freezing temps, wind chill, fatigue and working at night with a headlamp, you have to have a lot of situational awareness,” he said. “It’s so noisy and you’re in a man-made blizzard. It’s 90 miles an hour for 12 hours on a really cold night.”

Hamill said he’s lucky to have such a good crew to work with.

“Everyone around the mountain has been working really hard. This mountain has a great staff behind it,” he said.

Purgatory Resort Slopes Manager Josh Hamill’s favorite part about making snow is hopping into one of the resort’s snow grooming machines. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Hamill decided to become a snowmaker 22 years ago as a way to earn money while competing to make it as a professional snowboarder.

“I moved here to be a professional snowboarder, and it didn’t quite work out. I got pretty close,” he said. “The next best thing was to work for the resort on the park crew, and still get to ride every day.”

Hamill said it never gets old, hopping into a snowcat and pushing the snow around.

njohnson@durangoherald.com

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