Behind the scenes: Snowmaking at Breck
It’s equal parts art and science. A balance that Breckenridge Ski Resort has been fine tuning since it fired up its first snow gun in 1982.
With the ski resort opening in just a few weeks, snowmaking manager Brett Gray and his team of 33 (three shifts of 11 ladies and gents) are diligently working to open the mountain for Opening Day on November 11.
The snowmaking team calls it ‘The Guns of October’, and the troops are ready.
Gray began his career with Breck in 1983, working his way up the ranks as a lift operator followed by a 15-year ski patrol stint. Today, the snowmaking manager begins his day around 6 a.m., checking in with team leads, addressing mechanical issues, and making terrain rounds, all the while factoring in the forecast and staying ahead of the weather and Breck’s trail opening schedule.
“The weather forecast is always in the back of my mind,” Gray says, noting weather stations at the top, middle and bottom of each of Breck’s peaks. “If conditions are right, we can complete a trail top to bottom about every other day.” Base areas take longer to cover. The goal is to lay down an average of 18 inches of manmade snow on a trail.
With several permanently mounted guns, the Breck team can move from one trail to the next quickly. Optimal snowmaking temps hover between high teens and low twenties. Ideally, crews look for a 26-degree wet-bulb, or humidity-based, temperature.
Around 150 guns will run the weeks leading up to opening day, says vice president of mountain operations Gary Shimanowitz.
So how does it all work?
Modern snowmaking is complicated, labor-intensive and essential for a full season. Shimanowitz explains the science:
- The process is a combination of evaporate cooling of water and super cooling of compressed air.
- As the water droplet is expelled through the gun, some of it evaporates which causes heat loss and that, mixed with the super cooling of the compressed air that rapidly expands, allows the water droplet to freeze instantly.
- This produces the machine-made snow crystal that gravity then pulls to the trail.
And what does it mean for skiers and boarders?
Good news — it’s not “fake” snow. It’s actually as real as it gets, however machine-made snow does have higher water content than what naturally falls from the sky and is somewhat denser, which provides a great base for early season coverage, Shimanowitz explains.
“When a great snowmaking product is made and groomed, you should feel very little difference to natural snow,” Shimanowitz says.
– Lisa Blake