Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Holding's quest to make snow pays off in big dividends for skiers

Express Staff Writer

Sun Valley Co. added 10 state-of-the-art Camoplast BR 350 snowcats to its snow grooming fleet on Bald Mountain this year. Photo by Willy Cook

The reliable snow of Bald Mountain was created as much by Earl Holding as by nature in many years and did not fall naturally and indiscriminately out of the sky on the entire countryside. It was forced out of high-pressure nozzles in the form of water spray that turns to snow upon contact with cold air. It falls to the ground more or less (depending, like so much of life, on which way the wind blows) exactly where the directors of the nozzles intend.

Sun Valley opened as a ski resort in 1936, and for 40 years Sun Valley skiers were dependent on nature's snowfalls for their skiing, as, of course, were the Sun Valley Co. and other local merchants for the skiers' business. That ecological system worked well enough until the gifts of nature became line items in the corporate ledgers of the ski industry. Nature's cornucopia cannot keep pace with the desires of man, a scenario not limited to the world of skiing. In the early 1970s a string of nature's drought years struck western America. Snow fell sparsely or not at all. The economies of ski towns were hit hard, and Sun Valley/Ketchum was not spared.

In response to economic disaster (and really poor skiing) Sun Valley began to install what has become one of the world's largest and best man-made snow systems. In 1975, the first artificial snowmaking system in Idaho was installed on Baldy's Lower Warm Springs. After Sun Valley was sold by Bill Janss to Earl Holding, it has continued to expand in size, technological sophistication and efficiency. Today, Bald Mountain has 810 groomable acres (with fleets of $250,000 snow cats working the snow every night so that morning skiers have skiing as smooth as an Afghan rug) of ski terrain. About 645 (78 percent) of those acres can be covered with snow that does not come from the sky.

This elaborate system is connected by more than 36 miles of underground water pipes and is controlled from one center at the Roundhouse cooling tower. The runs of Bald Mountain are lined with 535 20-foot-tall metal "snow guns" resembling prehistoric, lanky, wingless birds with yellow bodies composed of thick pads wrapped around the bottom of the tubular guns to protect hapless skiers who collide with them.

Sun Valley has enough water rights to use up to 3,200 gallons of ground and surface water a minute in their snowmaking system. Normally, only half that allotment is used. If Sun Valley operates the snowmaking system eight hours a day, approximately 768,000 gallons of water is turned to snow. If snow is made 60 days a season, approximately 46,080,000 gallons of water is pumped from the ground and from Warm Springs Creek and turned into snow. The potential exists to divert double that amount of water, 92,160,000 gallons, from its natural cycles each year for the enjoyment of Sun Valley skiers.

Snow can be made from this water in temperatures ranging from 34 degrees Fahrenheit to 15 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and temperature is one of several variables determining the quality of the resulting ski conditions. There is some debate as to whether it is more aptly named "artificial" or "man-made" snow. I prefer the latter but sometimes think "technological snow" is closer to the mark. An argument can be made that anything made by man is artificial (except, of course, children); and an argument can be made that since man is part of nature anything he makes is natural.

Either way, the mechanics of producing tiny water droplets that turn into snow upon contact with cold air are similar in both nature and man's systems. Each produces six-sided snowflakes of similar but not identical structure, but the configuration of man-made flakes causes them to bond to each other more readily than do natural ones. Thus, the man-made flakes produce a denser snowpack that more easily turns to ice. Man-made snow has saved the community's bacon during some years and enhanced it every year.

Man-made snow systems are expensive. Sun Valley Co. does not disclose in-house financial information to inquisitive writers, but it is clear that it takes many millions of dollars to install and operate a sophisticated snowmaking system. It takes a lot of skiers to pay for technological snow on demand. The economics of Sun Valley and Bald Mountain are beyond the scope of this writing; but among the consequences of the financial realities of Sun Valley skiing is this:

Skiers on Bald Mountain either have some money to spare or have given up much in life in order to ski. Many modern Sun Valley November-to-April lift-riding skiers are retirees who refer to Sun Valley as a ski resort, not a ski area. In the Warm Springs Lodge on the majority of mornings before the mountain opens more skiers are over 60 than are under 40. Many came to skiing late in life, though some are lifetime skiers for whom retiring to ski is part of a natural and logical pattern. For the most part, it is retirees who can afford to stay in Sun Valley and ski. It was not always so, but for those who can the skiing is the best in America.

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