Fake Snow, Real Money: The High-Tech Fight to Save California Skiing
Most skiers at Heavenly in Lake Tahoe never even notice the snowmaking pump house, which is just a shed next to the day lodge at the base of the mountain. You can’t hear the hum of the pumps and motors until you’re inside. The whole operation is designed to be unobtrusive: A day on the hill should be exhilarating, free of any reminder that the resort company is engaged in an all-out battle with the weather.
That little pump house is, in fact, Heavenly’s weather center, where every day a crew of 38 decides exactly how much snow it can manufacture and when and where to do it. There are maps on the wall and three white boards that help them plan out the day. Four computers constantly monitor the temperature, humidity, air pressure, and water flow of Heavenly’s 66 fully automated fan guns. “I usually have four or five weather websites up at the same time. It’s the major part of my job,” says Barrett Burghard, senior manager of snow surfaces for Heavenly. “We will make snow 24-7, if it’s cold enough.”
Next to one of the computers sits a book the color of sunset: The Teaching of Buddha. Burghard has legitimate need for stress management. For the second year in a row, snowfall has been abysmal. Statewide, the snowpack was 25 percent of the historical average—“dismally meager,” according to the California Department of Water Resources. January was the driest on record. By mid-February, almost every hill in Tahoe had received less than 50 percent of its average snowfall.
Less snow means fewer skiers, and that means decreasing revenue for the state’s $1.3 billion ski industry. As of last season, skier visits—the industry’s metric of days skied per person—were down 28 percent from the 2010-11 season. Smaller resorts at lower elevations couldn’t survive: Badger Pass, which is in Yosemite National Park, and Dodge Ridge, which is just outside it, opened in December, then closed a month later. China Peak followed in mid-February. “This has been what I’m now calling the ‘cruelest’ winter I’ve ever seen,” China Peak Chief Executive Officer Tim Cohee wrote in an open letter on Facebook. “We have not only dealt with no snow, but also with incredibly marginal snowmaking conditions. … In nearly four decades I have never worked for a resort that closed mid winter; now I have.”
Heavenly is in a different position. It’s owned by Vail Resorts, a $3.1 billion, Denver-based resort company that has equipped Heavenly with some of the most sophisticated and expensive snowmaking equipment in the U.S. The snowmaking staff manages more than 200 air water guns, boom guns, and Super PoleCat fan guns that blow piles of crystals—sometimes a thousand hours a season—for a grooming team of 20 to transform into skiable trails. With 30,000 feet of pipes and hoses, the system can cover 73 percent of the resort’s 4,800 acres. In ideal conditions, snowmakers can fabricate winter at the rate of a foot of snow over 43 acres in just 12 hours. Even so, last year Vail reported a 28 percent drop in skier visits at its California resorts, and the company warned investors that its financial results would be worse than anticipated.
Those numbers reflect what could be a larger contraction of Tahoe’s ski industry. Seasonal and part-time hiring has slid 27 percent over the last three years, according Patrick Tierney, a professor of recreation, parks, and tourism at San Francisco State University, and spending on ski-related services has decreased from $717 million a year to $428 million. An older analysis by the San Francisco Reserve Bank showed that the value of resort-area homes in places like Tahoe can depend heavily on climate; even a 2-degree increase could cut home values by more than 50 percent.
To varying degrees, this is a problem for the global ski industry. Among the 19 cities that have hosted the winter Olympics—including Calgary, Chamonix, Nagano, and Oslo—the average February temperature is up to 46 degrees, up from 32 in the 1920s. These days, everyone is making snow. And among them, Heavenly’s system is known to be one of the most expensive and sophisticated. If they can’t save their season, no one can.
“Anyone can turn on a snow gun and say ‘It’s snowing!’” says Michael Fitzgerald, the swing shift manager at Heavenly. “But you really have to know how to read the conditions.” Fitzgerald wears mountaineering boots, and a large wrench hangs from his belt: Even with all the automation, snowmaking is hard work. The crew works in all conditions and around the clock.”One year we went 180 consecutive hours,” Fitzgerald says.
In many ways, snowmaking hasn’t changed over the years: When it’s cold out, gallons of water and pressurized air are forced through a nozzle. Heavenly buys its water from both the South Tahoe Public Utility District and the Kingsbury Grade Improvement District in Nevada. Most resorts note that snowmaking is officially “non-consumptive”—it doesn’t divert or deplete the overall water supply in the way that, say, farming does. “That snow will eventually melt and flow back into the ground,” says Doug Obegi, a staff attorney in the water program at the National Resources Defense Council. “Some fraction of that water would be lost to evaporation, but that’s also true for a stream.”
According to the International Classification for Seasonal Snow on the Ground (like UNESCO, for snow geeks), “Machine Made” snow is its own breed, shaped like a delicate, hollow sphere. It’s also getting better. Thanks to smartphone-controlled snowmaking systems made up of fiber-optic cables and low-energy fan guns that can cost upwards of $40,000 apiece, resorts like Heavenly make snow that’s only a little heavier than the natural stuff. On a recent January day, the snow at Heavenly was soft and smooth There is no skidding. There’s no dull, low scrape underfoot. It’s not powder, but the bumper stickers don’t lie: A bad day skiing is still better than a good day at the office.
Snowmaking equipment has become more energy efficient, but in the long term, new technology can only do so much. If winters continue to get warmer, as they’re predicted to do, resorts will need more and more guns and will blow them more and more often. “At 20 degrees, it’s easy and takes relatively low power and relatively little water,” says Jordy Hendrikx, director of Montana State University’s Snow and Avalanche Laboratory. “At 32, it takes huge amounts of both to make low-quality snow, and there isn’t a lot of it.” The power required for snowmaking exacerbates climate change and causes temperatures to rise, which in turn requires more snowmaking.
Just 17 miles south of Heavenly, the runs at Sierra-at-Tahoe are slushy and brown. With 2,000 skiable acres, it’s one of Tahoe’s smaller mountains, the kind of place where parents teach their kids to ski and middle-schoolers who have a 4.0 GPA get a free season pass. So far, it has survived the drought because it mostly faces north and it sits in an area that gets the most out of storms when they hit. It’s what attracted Drew Bray, from a ranching and coal mining background in Australia, to Sierra 20 years ago, where he’s now director of mountain operations.
Over the last few years, those storms have barely been enough. Sierra has six older snowmaking guns that it occasionally runs at low levels, but Bray’s aspirations to do more were quashed after he borrowed a fan gun from Heavenly. “To run it wide open would take more water than we can afford,” says Bray. Instead, the crew here collects snow from the deck of the day lodge and from its parking lots, then hauls it up the slopes. Snow fences, usually erected next to blustery highways in Wyoming, catch any extra snow that blows in.
It’s a hand-to-mouth existence that, in the context of climate change, threatens California’s more modest resorts. “A small player may only weather one bad season and cash reserves will be gone,” says Daniel Scott, a professor of tourism management at the University of Waterloo in Canada who has studied the effects of climate change on the ski industry. “Two bad seasons, and that’s all she wrote.” As it is, only 45 American ski areas have climbing revenues, and this 10 percent of hills already accounts for 40 percent of all ski business, according to former Vail Resorts and Intrawest exec Bill Jensen. Within a decade, 300 of the 470 U.S. ski resorts could be gone.
Plenty of people will wax nostalgic about these little hills, but there are real reasons that the survival of small resorts matters to the biggest players in the industry. New skiers often learn to make their first turns at local hills. They are magnets for families and ski buses, and the lift tickets are still less than $100 a day. For a sport such as skiing, which already suffers for its elitist image and high prices, smaller resorts provide relatively accessible entry. Without them, the number of skiers interested in week-long, high-end resort vacations will dwindle, regardless of the quality of the snow.
For now, the bigger resorts will continue to fight weather with weather. Heavenly hasn’t missed an opening day in at least 10 years, a fact the resort staff trumpets proudly. “We can guarantee we’ll be open for the holidays,” says Sonntag. “And we can guarantee the kind of snow we have. We’re not at the whim of nature.”
It’s true that for enough money, snow can be made anywhere. Take Sochi: The 2014 Winter Games were the warmest ever, but with the help of $2 million in Finnish snow-generating machines, piles of crystals were created at temperatures as high as 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
But this is not what big resorts are going for, and they’re working hard to find ways to make money independent of snowfall. Enabled by 2011 federal legislation that made it easier for resorts on U.S. Forest Service land to get permits for activities other than skiing, they are developing year-round activities— a move that gives them a hedge against lousy winters and bolsters summer tourism. A few years ago, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows announced a $70 million project that would include a yoga studio and a 132,000-square-foot adventure center with a lazy river, surfing simulator, and ropes course. Vail Resorts is building zip lines, biking trails, and alpine slides at several mountains, including Heavenly.
Even with technology and financial wherewithal, the resorts probably can’t win. “Snowmaking is not the answer,” says Porter Fox, author of Deep: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow. “It’s a stopgap measure to keep the ski resort industry from collapsing.” When you’re skiing on machine-made snow, yes, you’re carving turns, you’re sliding downhill, perhaps even flying. You’re in the mountains. You might be with your parents, you might be with your kids. The thing is, on more and more days, you won’t get the real powder you grew up on, the kind of snow that turns ambivalent skiers into die-hards. While resorts will be able to cover over the decline for decades to come, the long-term future of the sport looks just as patchy and thin as the runs at Tahoe in early February.
In the meantime, there’s always the promise of another legendary Tahoe blizzard, another epic season, another chance for skiers to adjust their rose-colored goggles. Last fall, Barrett Burghard organized his version of a team-building trip: The Heavenly snowmakers all went camping, torched an effigy Burning Man-style, and, he says, “prayed to the snow gods.” Two days later, the first natural flakes piled up, and with it, the hope for an industry. And just this past week, the storm clouds bunched over the Pacific, slammed against the Sierra Divide, and released 32 inches on Squaw Valley and more than a foot on Heavenly. It even dropped five inches on little Dodge Ridge. Their website left this message to their skiers and snowboarders: We are poised and ready once winter returns.