Vail Mountain makes snow, skiers or not |

Vail Mountain makes snow, skiers or not

Shane Macomber/Vail DailyDavie Graham holds his arm out to check if his man-made snowflakes, are too wet, too dry, too sticky or bouncy, early Thursday morning on Vail Mountain.

VAIL, Colorado ” This was what they had been waiting for. Steve Johannes had noted the low temperature ” in the teens ” on the thermometer when he left his home in Minturn.

“We’ll have a pretty good one,” said Johannes, a crew leader for Vail Mountain’s night snowmaking team, putting on his snow pants in the locker room.

It was Wednesday night, at the beginning of the 11 p.m. shift. Vail’s scheduled opening was 34 hours away.

This was the coldest it had been in a while. Over the previous two weeks, the snowmaking crew had struggled with warm temperatures that were not dropping far below freezing each night. That made for short windows for snow-making.

“We’ve just gotten barely going every night,” Johannes said.

But as temperatures drop toward zero, workers can make exponentially more snow. That’s exactly what Vail needed, with its opening day looming.

In this warm, dry autumn, Vail Mountain was relying on manmade snow to open the resort. Little natural snow had fallen so far on the mountain.

Johannes wasn’t sure if Vail was going to open Friday. It wasn’t his call. All he knew was that he and his crew were going to make as much snow as they could.

The crew members hopped in a pickup truck and headed up the mountain.

Johannes has worked this shift for the better part of 17 years. He did hardwood flooring for a few years, but this job drew him back.

He’s tried the 4 p.m.-midnight shift, but he didn’t like it as much. It’s this shift, 11 p.m.-9 a.m., that he loves.

“There’s just something about being outside all night like this that keeps you alive,” he said.

The sunrises are sublime, he said.

David Graham, the other crew leader, is starting his third year as a snowmaker.

“It’s a lot different than your average, everyday job,” he said.

As the truck made its way up the mountain, past Chair 2, there was little natural snow along the trail. Grass poked out through the snow, even near mid-mountain.

In the darkness, the truck abruptly came to a big building the interior of which was brightly lit. Inside were rows of big, green cylinders with yellow pipes sticking out of them. They hummed loudly.

“This is Snow Central,” Johannes said.

The 4 p.m.-midnight shift was finishing up. Two of its members monitored the snowmaking from a glass-encased control room in Snow Central. A bank of computer screens displayed maps of the snow guns, showing that, along Born Free, fifty-seven guns were blowing.

“We’re making good snow right now,” said Thad Sharp.

“Cranking,” said Christian Breitling.

The shift boss, Mike Kearl, walked in, caked in snow. He headed to the control room, where he briefed Johannes and Graham on how the night was going. To an outsider, it seemed he was speaking in strange jargon.

“We’re making killer.” “That rat made a pile.” “Central down, everything’s running.” “These are running wide open.” “I want it at 200.”

His fellow snowmakers listened attentively and asked questions.

Kearl has been making snow for five years. It’s a job he enjoys, he said.

“It’s outdoors,” he said. “There’s tangible evidence of the work you’re doing.”

The rookie on the crew, Darryl Sher, stood among the men. It was his fourth day at work. The 23-year-old Lincolnwood, Ill., native had recently arrived in Vail.

“It’s a place I always wanted to go to,” Sher said.

You couldn’t see past all the snow falling around you. It was relentless. It was truly dumping.

Step aside 10 feet, and it was not. But if you were underneath the sights of the snow guns, it felt like winter.

It was 12:30, and the crew was near the top terminal of Chair 8 on the Born Free run. A blanket of snow lay under the guns, which roared like jet engines.

The blue-coated men observed the snow that fell on their sleeves like chefs judging their own confections. They nodded in satisfaction.

“Things are looking great,” Johannes said.

The molecules were nice and big, Johannes said, shining his headlamp on his sleeve. They weren’t so wet they were turning to water when they hit his coat. They weren’t so dry that they were bouncing off his coat.

The hydrants mix water and compressed air, and as a result of a principle called “evaporative cooling,” the water droplets turn to snow crystals.

The guns had been firing since about four that afternoon, and big piles of snow had built up.

The men adjusted the positions of the sled guns. Two of them mightily struggled to push the gun as a third carried the hoses. Graham chipped away at the ice that had formed on the gun.

They continued down the run, moving the guns, chipping away ice, unburying hoses and adjusting their water levels. They would walk all the way down the trail in the darkness.

That morning, as their shift ended at 9 a.m., the guns still blared on Vail Mountain.

About an hour later, Vail Resorts announced that opening day would be delayed five days. Born Free was not ready.

These men would have a few more days to trudge in the darkness, doing what Mother Nature has not.

“Anonymous,” Johannes said. “That’s the way I like it.”

Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 748-2929 or

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