Mother Nature is fickle.
Just ask Don McKay, who’s seen snowstorms followed by 60-degree days followed by below-zero temperatures followed by rain followed by more snow this winter.
“Yup, I’ve noticed,” quipped McKay, who has run the Tyrol Basin ski and snowboard resort near Mount Horeb for years.
That’s one of the reasons why McKay has invested big time in snowmaking.
He figures he has at least $500,000 worth of snowmaking equipment on his slopes, while spending another $250,000 on electricity, labor and repairs each year to keep manmade snow spread over the resort’s 60 acres.
McKay isn’t alone. Every resort in the Midwest – with the exception of Mount Bohemia on the far northern shores of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – uses snowmaking to supplement natural snowfall.
With only 42 inches of snow dropping during a normal year, McKay said no downhill ski resort could operate profitably – or provide enjoyable conditions for skiers and snowboarders — without manmade snow.
“We’re not like the mountains out west where they get snowfall in the hundreds of inches,” he said. “They usually get more than enough to cover up big rocks and stumps.”
And while the 18-inch dump that arrived before Christmas seemed like a huge storm – and was greatly appreciated — McKay said it didn’t provide that much cover for the slopes.
“I like to say to people, ‘go out in your back yard and stomp it down and then poke your finger in it and see how much base you have.’ It won’t be a lot,” he said.
“That might give you a one-to-two-inch base,” he said. “And at a resort, where a lot of people are turning and pushing snow around with their skis and snowboards, that won’t really do much to cover up the irregularities of bare ground, grass, tree stumps and rocks.”
So when the weather drops below 28 degrees, McKay has crews out making snow. Sometimes the piles reach 15 to 20 feet high before they are moved around to cover the runs, create jumps or halfpipes popular with younger skiers and snowboarders.
He said his resort has five grooming machines, including a new one that cost Tryol $220,000 at the start of the season.
When several inches of rain fell on the slopes at Tyrol in late January, McKay said there was little runoff.
“Fortunately, the rain was pretty much absorbed by the snow base that we have on the hill,” he said.
“That’s just one of the advantages of having snowmaking, which allows us to build up a deep base,” he said. “The quality of snow that we’d made was fairly dry, so when it rained, the base snow absorbed it like a sponge. We had a little runoff, but not much.”
Then, when the rain stopped falling, it snowed again.
“By golly, we got a couple of new inches of snow and the rain-soaked snow never froze so the conditions stayed good and we had packed powder skiing again. Normally, if it had just turned cold, the surface would have frozen up pretty hard and we would have had to power till the runs to grind up the base for good skiing and riding conditions.”
McKay said Tyrol has 40 snowmaking machines, including 13 portables that can be moved around the resort.
“We have the capacity to make snow everywhere on the hill, just not all at once,” said McKay, who noted that Tyrol had snowmaking machines as early as 1959.
He said the science of snowmaking has evolved significantly over the past half century.
“There are different processes for making snow,” he said. “But probably the most important change has been more efficient rates of converting water to snow to reduce energy costs.”
In a nutshell, a fine mist of droplets are blown out into cold air to make snow crystals.
McKay said less manmade snow is needed as the season progresses – unless there is an unseasonable warm spell.
“We’ll continue to make it for resurfacing once we have our base established,” he explained. “We’ll also make snow as an insurance policy for March, but not if temperatures are above 20 degrees.
“And we probably won’t have crews out making snow when it’s below zero now, though we have done it when it’s been minus 20. As you can imagine, that’s pretty tough on the equipment and the men to be out there with running water and hoses in those conditions.”
— By Brian E. Clark