Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Weather or not, here they come

Elaborate snowmaking, grooming operations allow Sun Valley to welcome skiers even when Mother Nature

Express Staff Writer

Bright lights from two new Beast snowcats pierce the twilight as the machines groom uphill on Bald Mountainís Christmas Ridge on Saturday night. Photo by Willy Cook

If the bare hillsides were the only indication of winter recreation options in the Wood River Valley, Dennis Harper might not have been so cheerful.

But as the gondola descended the River Run side of Bald Mountain Saturday, the view of all the brown on the ground—a result of an unusually dry winter in the Wood River Valley—didn't dampen his spirits.

At the base, a Sun Valley Resort patron mirrored his mood.

"Thanks for all the powder, bro," the man said to Harper, hopping on the gondola to take another run. "It couldn't be better."

Harper, Sun Valley Resort's snowmaking manager, is one of 50 employees working to ensure that skiers and boarders have ample snow and groomed runs, no matter what kind of season is in store.

Snowmaking and grooming have been around for decades at Sun Valley. But Sun Valley Co. has invested and expanded those capabilities, allowing the winter season to open most years on Thanksgiving Day.

"It's a combination of snowmaking and grooming," said grooming manager Kerry O'Brien. "All over the whole mountain, the skiing is so good."

Although skier numbers for Jan. 7 were slightly off what was anticipated—3,190 for Baldy and Dollar—they were thousands more than if the mountain's runs were left to Mother Nature.

Some resorts in the West have yet to open all of their terrain, or to open at all. But Sun Valley's complex snowmaking and grooming operations allow skiers and snowboarders—and the local businesses that accommodate them—to count on mountain activity, weather or not.

"This is a great example of, 'Where would we be without it,'" said resort spokesman Jack Sibbach. "It speaks to the commitment of the ownership, and the job (the staff) does speaks to the pride in their work."

Midway up the mountain, near the Roundhouse Restaurant, members of the snowmaking department planned their tasks Saturday morning, duties that might include overseeing the computer controls, shoveling snow or performing mechanical fixes to every part of the installation.

"These are the guys that do all the work," Harper said.

The day shift is one of several in a department that works through the night.

"The mountain's open eight hours," Sibbach said. "But it's a 24-hour job."

Three shifts work around the clock, keeping a steady eye on the system, the snow and control panels.

Kim Anderson sat at the computer in the control room, peering at three monitors showing water temperature, tank levels, temperature probes, an event log and other aspects of the snowmaking system. A recently acquired software program gives operators a more complete and simultaneous view of the system.

"It used to be when you check on a gun, it would interrupt the whole computer," Anderson said.

The Johnson Controls Liberty system gathers data from each of Baldy's 555 automatic guns, self-adjusting when it can and notifying operators when it needs human input.

"It'll go through and read all the guns that are running," Harper said. "Everything that's going on in the mountain, it'll tell you. You can see the whole installation."

"The computer's always reading the weather station," he said. "If it's gotten colder, it'll put more water to the gun."

In years past, snowmaking staff had to make adjustments manually, so by the time they moved on to the next gun, weather or other conditions may have changed.

A constantly self-regulating system means snow quality is consistent.

"That's why the skiing's so good," Harper said.

"Every guy on shift can be a controller and do a great job running the system," he added.

Another new component is energy-efficient snow guns, which use one-tenth the energy of existing guns. They currently are being tested in certain areas.

In time, Harper hopes, the resort will incorporate more of those guns.

"My plan is to put low-energy guns in key areas, which will help save power and increase the production of our system," he said. "We always look forward to new expansion."

As the guns spread their snowy mist over the slopes, grooming crews gathered Saturday afternoon for the graveyard shift.

Chad "Crusher" Van Dellen, a Michigan native, has taken his experience in heavy-equipment operation and applied it to control The Beast.

The resort has just added to its grooming machine collection a second Beast, a massive groomer with a blade 8 feet longer than traditional groomers that have 15-foot blades. Some roads on Baldy had to be widened to accommodate its 23-foot blade.

The Beast bests traditional groomers in power, too. Most groomers have a 350-horsepower engine. The Beast boosts that power by 200, giving it a 550-hp engine. That added power allows the machines to move snow going uphill, unlike other cats, said groomer Jim Wieand.

As lifts quieted at twilight Saturday, Van Dellen pushed the Beast up Lower River Run. He moved his eyes from the control display to the undulations in front of him.

"We're looking for any imperfections, whether a big bump or a hole," he said. "If we spot any imperfections in the run we try to fix them. The main agenda is pushing snow back up the hill and flattening it out for the next day's traffic."

Perched atop Baldy, Van Dellen was met with a nearly full moon, a purple-blue sky and a long stretch of run in need of "buttering up."

"There's a lot to like about this job," he said. "These are very unique pieces of machinery. Not a whole lot of people get to run them.

And, he added, "It's extremely gratifying watching everyone enjoy your work."

Not to mention the fact that "you can't beat the view from our office."

Rebecca Meany:

See for yourself

Snowmaking tours are available to the public at 11 a.m. Thursdays and Saturdays. Sign up at the River Run Day Lodge lift ticket counter. Tours are free and last about one-and-a-half hours. A maximum of 15 people is allowed on each tour. For questions, call 622-6136.

The public also can ride "The Beast," a giant snowgrooming machine. Sign up for ride-alongs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at the recreation center at Sun Valley Village. For information, call 622-2135.

No lie, it's dry

The Big Wood basin's snowpack on Jan. 9 was 64 percent of average. Last year on that date, the snowpack was 100 percent of average.

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