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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.