A Look At Snowmaking Operations At Whiteface Mountain

Nov 23, 2016

The Thanksgiving holiday is traditionally the opening weekend for most major ski areas across the region.  Excitement peaked this week as multiple inches of natural snow fell, adding to the base of manmade snow already on the slopes.  Snowmaking operations can be crucial throughout the season. WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley was at Whiteface Mountain this week to see what it takes to keep the mountain white.

The snow guns have been jetting crystallized water onto Whiteface slopes, creating powdered snow so that ski runs will be ready for Thursday’s opening of the Olympic mountain.

General Manager Aaron Kellett steps up to a control box at the base of a snow gun mounted on a huge boom.  “This controls everything for the snow gun. So it’ll control temperature, position, vertical and horizontal. It controls snow quality. It actually has an on-board weather center so it’s a fully automated snow gun.  It’s going through its cycle.   It takes a second. So it’s turning. So it’s sensing where on the arm it actually is right now so it knows what direction to make snow.  That sound means it’s going to start its compressor. So you’ll hear the compressor start in a second. Then the fan will turn on and then it will send water.  So the next will be the fan, you’ll hear the fan kick on and then it’ll tell the hydrant, which we’re standing on top of, there’s an actuator on top of the hydrant that’ll send water to the gun. It’ll use 110 gallons a minute.”

Whiteface has hundreds of snow guns. Some are mounted on booms that can rotate.  The majority are set on the ground.  Some of the ground guns are set in place for the season.  Some of the upper mountain trails are so steep that mobile guns are brought to the runs as needed. Every trail has a pipeline.  
Each snow gun can be controlled at its base or from the centralized, computerized pump house adjacent to the Excelsior Trail.  Kellett explains that they are able to start, stop, move, and change how much snow or the snow quality from the operations center.    “This is the center of operations for our whole snowmaking system. We pump water from the river to this location and then we distribute it throughout the mountain. This is also our air factory.  So we have eight 800 horsepower compressors that generate all the air that we need for our snowmaking system and they’re all located here. So there’s a lot going on. A lot of heavy equipment and machinery that’s involved with this operation. All of our control center’s here also.  We basically have a computer screen right over here that tells us what’s happening, what’s running, what pumps are running, what compressors are running, if they’re operating properly. It goes through air pressures and water pressures and tells us what’s going on.”

Whiteface Snowmaking Supervisor Morgan Langey explains that about 6,000 gallons of water a minute is drawn directly from the Ausable River.  “We adhere to strict guidelines set by the APA, the DEC and we maintain a certain amount of flow in the river. And we monitor those with some computers and just manually checking it. So when it does get down to a certain level we are restricted.”

Langey moves into the compressor room, a loud and hot environment compared to the adjacent computer room.   “This is where our air is produced.  Our water is pumped from the river. These are all the water pumps that are boosting the water from here.  These are all the compressors.  Basically the same compressor you have in the garage but a lot bigger and a lot more powerful.”

Whiteface Mountain is a state-owned facility managed by the Olympic Regional Development Authority.  Spokesman Jon Lundin stops along one of the mountain’s trails to note that snowmaking is one of the most important winter operations on the mountain.   “Snowmaking began as a way to increase the ski season. Make snow early in the season and then it allows you to ski a little bit later. The technology and the science behind snowmaking has changed so much where the quality of snow is so unbelievably good and these snowmaking machines are so smart with their computers that they’re able to adjust with the climate. And what we have under foot is good quality skiing snow.”

In the last few days, Whiteface received 15 inches of natural snow in addition to the manmade snow.  Governor Cuomo announced Tuesday that Whiteface would open for the season a day earlier than planned on Thanksgiving Day.  The other state-owned ski centers – Gore and Belleayre – will open Friday.