Here in the East, this season’s natural snow has been in short supply so skiing has been pretty much confined to manmade snow trails, and the short windows of good snowmaking temperatures have made me more aware of huge mounds of manmade snow often referred to as whales. Snowmaking whales are not new to me; I have disliked them for many years. I hate skiing amongst them, and think it is lousy skiing, and frankly unsafe in many situations. My own ops team would push back and say it was necessary to let the snow drain, which initially made sense, but drain for how long? What made me question the concept more recently is that I experienced certain mountains pushing manmade snow much sooner than what I was used to and the skiing at these mountains on these surfaces was very good. This triggered a bunch of questions.
I had the recent opportunity to share my questions with someone who knows a whole lot more than I do about snow making, that being Brian “Tito” Alex. Here’s what Tito shared with me:
“Skiing on “whales” can lend itself to liability, whereas “porpoises” (smaller rounded piles) are often welcomed by ski Instructors. The reason is because when compared to flat groomed trials, these features naturally force students to off-weight and turn. Before terrain parks were formalized, these porpoises were the “features” that attracted snowboarders for hits and air.
The newer snow guns are only a small part of the blame for the whales. The low-e snow particles are not the issue. The whales are commonly formed because the trend is to use stationary guns and hydrant spacing is incorrect. Thus snowmakers make big piles to cover the distance between hydrants. Proper hydrant spacing reduces this problem.
A bigger part of the blame for whales is how snowmaking is managed. Well-trained teams seldom make whales. This is due to the following reasons:
1. The cost is expensive for grooming machines to doze piles.
2. Deep snow insulates itself. The lack of surface area hinders evaporation and drying. Thus, product in the middle of the pile is wetter. When dozed and groomed the quality can be poor.
3. Snow Quality – Most snowmakers are taught to make wet snow from the belief that it is more durable: which is not true. Reality is that these snow particles are not fully frozen. In other words, a hard-boiled egg vs a soft-boiled egg. Thus, when a groomer gets on a new pile of snow, the water is released and the wet snow does not till well. “Death Cookies” is slang term for the poorly tilled snow. So once the problem has been created, the solution is to stay off the piles until the water drains out. (Waiting for piles to leach out also minimizes trail counts which directly effects revenue)
4. Low-e technology has significantly increased the number of snow guns that are running, while labor has remained the same. It is impossible for a crew to give the same attention to many more snow guns, thus whales are more common. Most snowmaking crews are understaffed and this is the fault of management. The ratio of online snow guns to field staff tells the story for at your resort. Does the ratio remain similar in all operating conditions?
5. The most guns are running when it is the coldest. This is the opportunity to make the most snow for the least expense. Comparably, food service, retail and rentals increase staff for peak performance periods like weekends and holidays. Yet, when it is cold and snowmaking has the opportunity for peak performance, the staff size typically remains the same. This management error can be solved with flex staffing. (We have data from many resorts that shows the decrease in efficiency when temps are cold. But because piles are big, managers believe that productivity is high and this is incorrect)
6. The easiest solution to having no whales and improved snow quality is to move and pivot the snow guns more frequently. For manual guns, this takes labor.
7. Automation – process control will always produce more snow, better quality and superior placement than manual operated equipment. Most automated fan guns have an oscillator function which reduces whales and allows for better evaporation of moisture.
In my experience, proper snow quality is ready to ski without any time for water to drain from it. Progressive resorts often groom first, and then make snow on the trail so that skiers get a better experience. This takes a well-trained crew and cooperating wind. It is often done with manual snow guns, although automation helps. ASC used to refer to this as retail snow – and customers loved it.”
Tito and I are sharing information that might be disputed and questions management practices as they relate to snowmaking. We both fully recognize many of the challenges, money, labor and weather. However, I will add, significant amounts of dollars are being invested in snowmaking equipment without addressing the operational issues pointed out here. This is unfortunate and only compounds the disappointment of the skier or rider experience.
The challenge of labor has been apparent this season especially in the East, where snowmaking windows have been tight and crews are not large enough to take advantage of the weather windows. This problem will not fix itself as we all know, and as we look to next year’s planning, the discussions as to snowmaking management should be front and center with new ideas batted around the table.
Tito and I would be more than happy to work with you on developing a training/operating plan that enables you to maximize the output of your system and chases the whales out to sea.
Contact information for Tito:
Brian Tito Alex