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Running for cover

Resorts are under the gun to make snow -- and do it fast

Shortly after Christmas in 1980, Les Otten, ever the promotion man, brought snow by the truckload from his Sunday River ski area in Maine down to Boston Common, and with news cameras running spread a cover of white on the cold green earth.

His point was no more subtle than most of the things Otten does. But it was one that needed hammering home then and does to this day: Don't measure the quality of the ski season by what's in your backyard.

Nonetheless, skiers and boarders are, in fact, motivated by what they see at home. One Monday night football game played in a blizzard in Denver resulted in hundreds of advance reservations calls to the I-70 ski areas just west of the city.

But Otten was not only stating that his then-fledgling ski area had snow. This was to be the main building block of the area's success: excellent snow, created by airguns and groomed to perfection. It became the hallmark of Sunday River, a formula used a decade later by Okemo in Vermont, which, in its own ascendency, had to give skiers a reason not to pass by it on the way to Killington.

Referred to as "the product" by most areas, machine-made snow is the story of the last quarter-century, and the basis for many market-share battles for the hearts and minds of the skiing and riding public.

Despite a warm and somewhat rainy week in the Boston area, this weekend there will be skiing in the northern mountains, and with the promise of colder weather on the way, the enormous arsenal of snowmaking weaponry will get cranked up again within days.

"Once we get around the corner into the cold weather," said David Crowley of Wachusett Mountain in Princeton, "we'll be blowing snow around the clock."

Brother Jeff Crowley, who handles mountain operations for the area, says the new HKD guns used at Wachusett are eight times more efficient than the ones used in the early generations of snowmaking. "The savings of energy are significant," said Crowley, adding that the less-compressed air used means quieter snowmaking guns -- a plus for folks who have ever been close to a deafening compressed air gun. "Everyone is buying these guns now, and it's changing snowmaking significantly."

Real winter enthusiasts who want a white Christmas in a green world can purchase a home version of the HKD, called a Backyard Blizzard, for under $3,000. "I tried one," said Crowley. "You plug in the compresser, hook up your garden hose, and the thing just hums out the snow."

Sunday River itself is whirring the snowguns and has had its machine-made on about 35 open trails, augmented by snow and freezing rain on Tuesday. Still, says Jody Brown, despite some cold spells, this has not been an ideal snowmaking fall. "We're not as productive this fall as we would like to have been," said Brown, who rates this "about in the middle" of the seasonal start-ups he has been involved with. And there have been many in a career that goes back to the Otten beginnings at Sunday River.

"The weather hasn't been too consistent," said Brown. "If we can get down to an average of around 20 degrees, we'll be able to move along at a pace that's somewhat confortable."

Ideally, says Brown, the area, which has nearly unlimited water supply, would like to have the snow guns running around the clock so it can open new terrain on a steady basis. "We like to operate 24/7," said Brown, "but that's pretty hard to do prior to Thanksgiving. After then, it's more common for us to go at that pace. But this year we've been struggling to open three or four [new] runs every day. But here we've been at it since early November and we just have 21 runs open." (There'll be 35 by the weekend.)

The real enemies of consistent snowmaking, says Brown, are the rainy spells. When they come -- as has been the case in recent days -- the snowmakers, rather than working on opening new terrain, must recover trails they've already worked on.

"That happened to us twice," said Brown. "And we have lots of condo owners and people throughout the region who rely on snowmaking before they can start generating revenue. It's really a struggle sometimes early in the year to make everybody happy."

In the last 25 years, Brown has been in charge of both snowmaking and snow grooming -- two separate departments at the area, until they combined into Snow Surfaces, the department he now runs. The two entities have had rivalries ever since he has been involved.

"There was this whole thing about the groomers are nice and warm with their stereos and don't like to get out and work hard and the snowmakers are uncomfortable out in the elements," said Brown. "But I've been able to get past that whole thing and get the two deparments to communicate better. And that is really key to snowmaking."

The art of the job is to factor wind drift and place the snowguns so that snow falls precisely where it's needed. "It's a whole lot better to get the snow to fall just where you need instead of having to push it there," said Brown. "It's just better and more cost effective to do it that way."

The Sunday River, a tributary to the Androscoggin, drains a 45-square-mile area and feeds into a man-made snowmaking pond on a gravel aquifer, ensuring an enormous and steady water supply for snowmaking. With such unlimited water supply, says Brown, the elements that become even more vital to making snow are time, temperature, and pumping capacity.

As with Wachusett, Sunday River has developed its own snowguns, "the result of a lot of flow-testing at different temperatures," said Brown. "We came up with this gun that we're pretty proud of. We're toying now with some high-efficiency heads that mount on our towers simply because when we're in the fall in this situation most of the time we are now able to pump with all of our water system in very marginal [temperatures]. When it gets cold, we'll start to pull away from the other resorts."

According to the long-range forecast, temperatures are headed for single digits late in the weekend.

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