Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Donning the role of Jack Frost

Snowmaking director works against the weather


By TREVON MILLIARD
Express Staff Writer

Dennis Harper, director of snowmaking for Sun Valley Resort, reaches the top of Bald Mountain by way of Upper College run, which has seen a great deal of artificial snow since production began Oct. 25, following the seasonís first natural snowfall. Harperís goal is to open a stretch from Bald Mountainís top to the River Run base by Thanksgiving, but weather hasnít been cooperating.

Dennis Harper throws his leg over one of the snowmobiles, turns the ignition and heads for a trail cutting across Bald Mountain. He rides over a film of snow and slush, his right hand light on the throttle, careful to avoid the rocks poking through the vanilla veil.

Harper soon reaches the base of Upper College run and takes a sharp left straight up the mountain face. Snow dunes ranging from 10 to 30 feet high cover the run ahead. He twists back his wrist and speeds toward the first dune, summiting it and then dropping into a basin before reaching the next.

Evenly spaced 30-foot-tall snow guns line the run, similar to streetlights at the side of a road. Each gun stands as one long stem extending upward but at a slight angle, emerging out of the snow like a straw out of a glass of milk. Harper reaches the 9,000-foot summit and looks down.

"Look at the contrast," he says, pointing to the snowy slope at his feet and then the brown land beneath and all around. The mountain is an isolated ivory island from Roundhouse up.

The goal for Harper, director of snowmaking for Sun Valley Resort, is to open a continuous stretch of skiing from Baldy's summit to the River Run base by Thanksgiving Day. Nature rarely provides the goods to make this happen.

"We're dependent on snowmaking up here," Harper says. "Snowmaking allows us to open early and stay open late."

The mountain receives an annual average snowfall of 220 inches. To put this into context, 35 out of North America's top 50 ski resorts—ranked by Ski magazine readers—receive more natural snow than Sun Valley. Thirty resorts receive 300 or more inches of snow in a ski season, 10 of which receive between 400 and 540 inches.

Instead of relying on the weather, Harper has donned the role of Jack Frost, calling on 555 automatic snowguns to be his clouds. The guns are all interconnected into one system by way of 30 miles of underground steel pipe capable of pumping 2,000 gallons of water per minute on the mountain's River Run side and 1,200 more per minute on the Warm Springs side. Harper and his crew control it all from one computer near Roundhouse, deciding which gun receives the mix of cold air and water needed to make snow.

Despite the elaborate snowmaking system, Harper is always left victim to the will of the weather.

Snowmaking started Oct. 25, but all guns are quiet today, Oct. 29. It will stay that way until the weather cools, which isn't anytime within the five-day forecast. Harper called off his crew for the next couple of days, knowing any snowmaking is out of the question.

November has arrived, and the mountain has received one foot of natural snow, which fell two weekends ago. Harper says it has compacted down to half that near Bald Mountain's top but melted away in most places.

Harper, 51, isn't one to complain about what he can't control, learning from experience. He's been in snowmaking for 12 years, but his previous career of 25 years was equally dependent on the weather and precipitation, though on the opposite end of the spectrum. He farmed wheat and sugarbeats in the Raft River Valley southeast of Burley.

When the weather is right, Harper said, his crew will be working 24/7 in three shifts telling the automatic guns what to do, repairing guns and water lines that have burst beneath ground, and hauling manual guns out to areas without automatic snowguns.

"If it's cold, we're here," he says.

Their snowmobiles will be zooming around the mountain at night, and they'll be riding the lifts and skiing around during the day.

The more snow they put down, the better, because it doesn't melt as easily as the drier natural snow. And they use it to get around during early winter.

"A lot of the time, we built all the snow we're travelling on," he says.

Harper said this time of year is always scary because they have to chain up trucks and use them up to Roundhouse or so because of sparse snow, which can be tricky when trying to controllably drive down the steep, icy service roads of Baldy.

"It's that time of year all snowmakers hate," he says. "It's a little scary—a lot scary."

A little natural snow and cold weather would go a long way.

Harper looks back on his first snowmaking season, when he didn't realize how difficult it would be to accumulate what nature couldn't provide.

"I stood on the top of Baldy after an 8-inch snowstorm looking all around at the Pioneers, Boulders and Smokys, everything covered in white. I thought 'Now, that's a snowmaking system,'" he says.

Trevon Milliard: tmilliard@mtexpress.com




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