Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing
At long last, Arapahoe Basin has finally managed to get its snowmaking system up and running. But the area saw so much powder early in the season that the biggest challenge was digging down through the snowpack to find the hookups for the fan guns.It’s a bittersweet moment for some long-time Legend fans. On the one hand, A-Basin clearly struggled the past few seasons, when a lack of early season snow postponed opening day and played havoc with staffing. By the time the ski area opened, many season workers had already signed on with other resorts, leaving A-Basin scrambling for employees.On the other hand, it’s no longer possible to make the "all-natural" claim that for the last couple of decades set A-Basin apart from its larger Summit County neighbors. It really does mark the end of one era and the beginning of another.There’s no need to rehash all the environmental issues and legal battles that have been described in painstaking, gruesome detail in the past few years. It was an interesting story, but it’s been beaten to death. And to tell the truth, A-Basin deserves support as an "independent" ski area in this day and age of corporate consolidation (I use quotation marks because A-Basin owner Dundee Realty is a very large commercial real estate firm with close ties to Vail Resorts). And, after all, the most important thing is that the area survives. "All-natural" doesn’t mean much if the lifts aren’t turning.But at the same time, let’s leave the larger question hanging in the air for future generations to ponder: is this a wise use of precious natural resources that’s sustainable for the long-term?There’s no doubt it’ll be great in the spring. With the combination of natural and artificial snow, A-Basin should be able to stay open through its traditional July 4 closing date most years from now on. Of course, the skiing is usually not that good after Memorial Day, but it’s just great to know that it’s there, for those June mornings when you wake up craving just one more day.But for now, I’ll be choosing my line down the mountain to avoid the machine-made stuff as much as possible. You really can feel the difference. Machine-made snow is not really snow, and I’ll swear on this until the day I die. I prefer to think of it as powdered ice. It does serve some useful purposes, as described above, especially when it’s been chopped and rolled and buffed out by a high-tech snowcat. But let’s be honest about it: it just ain’t the real thing.Environmental concerns aside, I think that’s what bugs me the most about the whole idea of snowmaking it’s been peddled as a virtuous substitute for natural powder for so long that there are entire generations of skiers who don’t know any better. They spend the majority of their ski time on intermediate cruisers at big resorts where machine-made snow has become the norm, and the resorts like it that way because it allows them to sell a pre-packaged, standardized and homogenized, no-risk vacation experience, like McDonald’s sells burgers and fries.To me, it’s a pity, because learning the feel of different kinds of snow and experiencing how the snow evolves over the course of a winter should be part of the skiing (and snowboarding) experience. Yes, this is the retro-grouch speaking, but it seems important that we understand what the sun, wind and temperature can do to the snow. It seems that’s a big part of being in the snow-covered mountains is all about.For now, the Arapahoe Basin snowmaking operation is small-scale; just what the area needs to ensure reliable operations. But that’s how it started at the other resorts years ago as an insurance policy against the occasional drought year, or to provide a consistent base in high-traffic areas. Let’s hope they keep it that way.Bob Berwyn is a freelance writer in Summit County who spends as much of his free time as possible at The Legend.