Friday, January 27, 2012

Being lucky and artificial snow


Being lucky is better than being skillful. And I've been very lucky.

Years ago I decided to hang my skis on a mountain in Montana and move there from the middle of the Colorado Rockies. And Montana has certainly fared better for snow early this winter season. Who would have thought that the Colorado and California snow report in mid-January 2012 would be, "No new snow on a 5- to 7-inch base"?

Speaking of the passage of time, it has been many years since I sat and looked at a Sun Valley ski hill with no snow on it and a restaurant at the base full of disgruntled people who had traveled a long way to carve turns on Averell Harriman's pride and joy. Sun Valley is where the first chairlift in the world was built, on Dollar and Proctor mountains.

Two weeks before that long-ago dismal afternoon of staring at sagebrush that was 18 inches high covered here and there with an inch or two of snow, I had seen artificial snow for the first time. I had filmed Walt Stopa's latest deal at Wilmot, Wisc. Stopa was a pioneer among ski area operators in making snow by shooting a mixture of air and water from high-powered nozzles. That was in 1952 at his Wilmot Hills ski area, the so-called "Matterhorn of the Midwest," a former cow pasture on the Illinois and Wisconsin state line near Antioch that, thanks to Stopa, had one of the country's first ski tows, in 1938. Today they call it man-made snow. It's the savior of many skier days that occur across the U.S. for anyone with money to install the machinery.

In that long-ago Idaho winter when the sagebrush was higher than the snow, I tried to explain to Sigi Engl, then Sun Valley Ski School director, how the process of combining high-pressure air and high-pressure water could possibly make something as complicated as a snowflake—with no two of them ever the same. Sigi was skeptical. Remember, Sigi was a ski instructor in Sun Valley when Howard Head showed up the first time with his metal skis. Sigi was reported to have said, "If man was meant to use skis made out of aluminum, God would have grown aluminum trees."

As we stared at the chairlifts swinging gently in the wind but not moving up the hill that was covered with sagebrush, Sigi said, "Those artificial snow machines are probably pretty good back East where they don't get much snow, but we don't need them out here in the West were we get a lot of it."


Yeah, sure didn't look like it that day.

Today any ski resort without artificial snow is playing poker with the devil. The other night a friend said, "These bad winters with no snow follow some sort of a seven-year cycle." I asked him to explain what caused the cycle of seven years and he said, "That's what my Grandpa told me." Unfortunately the source of the information is buried with his Grandpa somewhere in Vermont where he had died.

For me, the fact that the weather cycle follows lunar (moon) cycle rather than a solar cycle fits better in my hard drive. There are 13 months in an annual lunar cycle. Pick any given month for the worst days of winter, and in his grandpa's theory, the same days will come up one month later every year. I think this last year it fell in September when they got a lot of snow at Crystal Mountain in Washington and at Mammoth during the same storm and almost none since.

Come to think of it, I'm a grandpa almost like that guy buried in Vermont except I'm not buried in Vermont, or anywhere else for that matter, yet. I wonder sometimes where all the knowledge you have stored up in a lifetime of learning goes when you get buried. Wouldn't it be great if someone could attach a couple of wires to you wherever your hard drive is located and do a wire transfer of all the knowledge you have in some sort of a time-warped moment? Just an idea of what to do with the banks of knowledge of old guys whose grandchildren barely tolerate them, if at all, unless they bring candy or presents when they visit.

There were problems of the unknown during those early days of artificial snowmaking machines. A winter or two after Walt Stopa's breakthroughs on his 186-vertical-foot hill, someone leased Soldier Field in Chicago and filled the bleachers up with his wonderful invention, along with several rope tows and a genuine Austrian Ski School. By the time they got the bleachers filled up with snow every water pipe in the stadium was frozen solid. Within two days, the freshly fallen artificial snow had turned an ugly gray from all the coal-fired furnaces within a three-mile radius. The film I captured was reminiscent of some I took on the side of an erupting volcano in New Zealand years later. By the time I showed the "Soldier Field Ski Resort" to my audiences the following year, the developer of the resort had filed for bankruptcy. The ski school operator was last seen at O'Hare Field boarding a discount ski club charter flight for Bavaria, and the only survivor of this ski resort in the bleachers on man-made snow was the guy who ran the toboggan slide down between the goal posts and out into the end zone.

Maybe Sigi was right when he said they only needed these snow machines back East, and Chicago just wasn't far enough back East to have one that worked in Soldier Field.

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