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The Art of Snowmaking

Snowmaking

Mother Nature is fickle. Weather comes and goes, and rarely in the patterns that we’d like. Winter resorts achieved phenomenal growth over the past half-century. To help meet the demand of the popularity of skiing the unpredictability of Ontario’s snow conditions was a problem that needed to be solved. The solution was obvious: make your own snow.

How Nature Does It

It's a common misconception that machine made snow is "artificial". In fact, machine made snow is more or less the same as the white stuff that falls from the sky.

"Real" snow starts as water vapour in the atmosphere. As temperatures dip, the water vapour condenses into tiny drops, or if it's cold enough, as tiny ice crystals. When enough ice crystals collect together, they become heavy enough to fall toward the earth. If the air is cold enough all the way to the ground, we see the collected crystals as snowflakes. If it's warm, the crystals melt, and we get rain. Seems simple, right? Not quite. Trying to re-create what nature does using thousands of feet of altitude, millions of acres of territory, and an unbelievably complex weather system, is not as easy as it seems.

How We Do It

The basic principle of making snow has not changed much from when inventor/engineer Wayne Pierce used a paint spray compressor, nozzle and some garden hose to create a machine to make snow.

Liquid water is pumped into a specialized nozzle or “gun“, where it collides with highly pressurized air. The compressed air shatters the stream of water into minute particles and launches them into an atmosphere of freezing ambient air. The droplets of water freeze into crystals of frozen water before they hit the ground.

The White Blue

It sounds simple, but to get it right is more difficult – and expensive - than it appears.

Here at Blue Mountain, we are working within a very unique and unpredictable micro-climate due to the influences of Georgian Bay and the Niagara Escarpment. The result is that weather conditions can vary wildly within just a few kilometers.

To provide the best experience possible in all this uncertainty, Blue has invested millions of dollars developing and purchasing state of the art snowmaking equipment and has placed an emphasis on improving our system by investing in the latest snowmaking technologies that enable us to maintain consistent mountain conditions regardless of fluctuations in climate and snow patterns.

To replace natures ability to evaporate water from the earth’s surface and create moisture in the atmosphere, Blue Mountain uses twelve pumps to push water up the hill at a maximum rate of 14 000 Gallons Per Minute (GPM) from 2 reservoirs. This is enough water to fill the average size swimming pool in 2 ½ minutes.

To help our water freeze (remember that natural snow gets to fall through the cold air for thousands of feet), we have more than 460 state-of-the-art snowmaking guns, that fire water droplets into the air - freezing into “flakes” before hitting the ground.

Water can be distributed to any one of five hundred and twenty hydrants located across two hundred and fifty four ski-able acres of terrain.

It's Not the Heat, It's the Humidity…

This common summer complaint is just as valid in the winter. Although your thermometer might read -6ºC (the “dry bulb” temperature), the humidity of the air affects how quickly water droplets will freeze.

This "wet bulb" temperature has a huge impact on snowmaking, along with a host of other meteorological factors like wind speed and direction, air pressure, and the temperature of the water being used to make the snow. All these factors are in a state of flux and need to be constantly monitored to ensure great snow.

R&D at Blue

Despite this extensive infrastructure, most areas still struggle at times with variable weather conditions. In the time it takes a snowmaking team to get the snowmaking plant operational the conditions can shift. It can be frustrating and expensive to watch a multi-million dollar system sit idle because the temperature keeps jumping around.

This all changed at Blue, with the development of a new valve technology.

The new valve, developed by locals Dan Skelton and Jamie Russell, is remotely controlled. With the click of a mouse, snowmaking towers on the mountain can be turned on and off, allowing us to take advantage of very small snowmaking weather windows.

The Snowmaker: Mad Scientist, or Just Plain Mad?

All the towers and piping in the world don’t mean a thing without someone to operate them. That’s where snowmakers come in. Part electrician, part plumber, part computer operator, part engineer, part equipment operator, part…you get the picture. Snowmaking requires a broad base of skills, all of which must be used under tough conditions. At the best of time, it’s dark, wet, cold and loud work – definitely not for the faint of heart.

Here at Blue Mountain highly experienced and knowledgeable snowmakers push the art of snowmaking to its limits, working with some of the newest and best technology in the industry.

The result? The best snowmaking in Canada!

What It All Means for the Skier

Making snow is not cheap. When you weigh the costs against the benefits, however, it becomes obvious that snowmaking makes good financial sense for many resorts.

But why spend endless hours perfecting this system to make snow? Because snowmaking enhances the guest experience tremendously.

Machine made snow provides a sustainable snow base across the property for the duration of the ski season. For early season starts, Blue may rely almost entirely on snowmaking.

Machine made snow also helps to ensure that a quality snow consistency is maintained and is better suited than natural snow in combating sublimation, radiant heat and general skier traffic “wear and tear” from repeat use. Once the snow on the hill loses its crystalline structure it becomes spherical and loses its ability to lock together like building blocks. Subsequently, adding machine made snow to the ski surface re-initiates the crystalline structure virtually adding life back into the snow.

Timing is Everything

Two of the most common questions received by snowmakers and other resort staff are 1. Why are you making snow? and 2. Why aren’t you making snow?

Although every effort is made to make snow at night when possible, snowmakers still operate at the mercy of the elements. There may be times when prime skiing hours provide the only conditions suitable for creating new base, patching bare spots, and stockpiling snow.

At other times, when the base seems thin, it may be too warm, humid, or windy to make snow. Trust your snowmakers to know when the optimum time to blow is, and to create the best possible snow experience for you.

Blue Facts:
  • It takes about 75,000 gallons (285,000 liters) of water to create a 6-inch blanket of snow covering a 200x200-foot area (61x61 meters).
  • $ Investment – over $12M to date
  • Largest snowmaking system in Canada (14,000 gallons per minute)
  • 100% snowmaking coverage from Big Baby to Kandahar
  • Computerized System
  • Able to produce snow at all temperatures below –2ºC
  • More than 33 miles of steel pipe buried beneath the frost line
  • 2 reservoirs (25,000,000 gallon capacity in total)
  • 460 snow guns in total
  • 3 km of water pipeline from Georgian Bay
  • Fourteen 1,000 gpm pumps
Snowmaking Benefits:
  • Earlier season starts
  • Later season closes
  • Improved consistency of conditions
  • “Insurance” against poor seasonal weather
  • Rebound from even the worst thaws within 24-48 hours after cold temperatures return
  • Machine-made snow is more resilient than natural snow
  • More of it survives a thaw
  • Lasts much longer into the spring
  • Machine-made snow is more dense, and once it's groomed into a packed powder surface, feels every bit as good to a skier or snowboarder

© Blue Mountain Resort 108 Jozo Weider Blvd., Blue Mountains, Ontario Canada L9Y 3Z2
Blue Mountain Ski Resort, the largest mountain resort in Ontario, Canada. Perfect for your snowboarding and skiing holidays. Located near Collingwood, a 90-minute drive from Toronto. Learn about the mountain and Blue Mountain Village, book your accommodations and ski or golf vacation packages right here.