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PHOTOS: Short on powder, Colorado’s ski resorts let snowmakers rip

A dry and warm November in the high country is leading Colorado resorts to rely on the man-made alternative to powder.

Snowmaking crew members perform routine maintenance of snow guns on Nov. 21, 2021, at Aspen Highlands ski area. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Ski resorts across the country are leaning more heavily on snowmaking guns as warmer, shorter winters threaten a business model based on snow. In Colorado, the reliance on man-made snow has been essential to the start of the 2021-22 ski season, with all of the state’s 13 major river basins reporting precipitation through November well below long-term averages

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Snowmaking, so far, has buoyed the start of the 2021-22 ski season, enabling a handful of hills to open for Thanksgiving despite earlier delays. Vast networks of snowmaking guns, hoses, pumps and reservoirs — all orchestrated by the hardiest teams of resort workers — are blowing snow across the state as ski areas pray for help from Mother Nature in the form of cold temps or bona fide flakes. 

Man-made snow crystals, created by the snow guns above, trickle onto the ski run during a cold afternoon at Keystone ski resort on Nov. 25. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Snowmakers need a perfect mix of temperature and humidity to blow finely misted water that falls as snow. Obviously it needs to be cold, below 32 degrees. But 26 degrees is the sweet spot at which pressurized water blasted through nozzles that break down water to the tiniest of particles turns into cold, dry snow. The longer temperatures can hover around 26 degrees, the longer resorts can blow and the more terrain they can open. 

Snow crystals, created by a mix of pressurized water and cold air, spray from a snowmaking machine to create a layer of man-made snow for skiers and snowboarders at Aspen Highlands ski area on Nov. 21. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The National Ski Areas Association said that U.S. ski areas invested nearly $98 million in snowmaking improvements to existing systems for 2020-21. About 88% of the 337 ski areas represented by the NSAA deploy snowmaking guns. Ski areas east of Colorado tend to have the highest percentage of terrain covered with man-made snow. Resorts in the Rocky Mountains blanket, on average, about 13% of their terrain with man-made snow. Blowing snow is costly, too. Snowmaking typically accounts for 10% to 20% of a resort’s annual power bill. 

Snow crystals, which start as pressurized water and turn to mist when blown from snow guns, freeze in mid-air and fall onto piles of man-made snow. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

And many resorts in the arid West spend millions to secure water rights for snowmaking systems that hedge against a persistent drought that is likely to persist in a changing climate. Ski areas in Eagle, Grand and Summit counties have filled the Clinton Gulch and Eagle Park reservoirs near Fremont Pass where they store water for snowmaking. Most resorts have senior water rights and decades-old storage systems, so they rarely, if ever, see interruptions to the flow of water to snowmaking guns. 

Skiers from the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club practice aerial tricks on man-made snow at Aspen Highlands ski resort on Nov. 21. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

In Colorado, only four ski areas do not have snowmaking: Monarch near Salida, Kendall Mountain and Silverton Mountain in Silverton, and Ski Cooper, near Leadville.   

Man-made snow drifts across a ski run at Copper Mountain in late November. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

It wasn’t always so ubiquitous. Lean seasons — specifically 1976-77 and 1980-81 — forced Colorado’s resorts to funnel millions into snowmaking. Some resorts closed early in 1977 and 1981 due to a lack of snow. Most opened late. Some even sent trucks and dozers to remote snowfields in the mountains to haul snow back to ski areas. Another resort hired locals to shovel snow onto balding runs. By the late 1980s, few Colorado ski areas were not using snowmaking to augment natural snowfall.

The snowmaking machines’ ideal temperature is 26 degrees, which creates the best balance for water and air moisture to form snow crystals. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)