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Vail snowmaking system runs full-blast in storm’s wake

New, automated system gives crews a head start when conditions are right

Snow guns fire Monday at the base of Gondola One Monday in Vail. The cold temperatures are allowing the resort to fire up the guns in anticipation of opening day.
Chris Dillmann | cdillmann@vaildaily.com
By the numbers
  • 500+: Acres of snowmaking terrain on Vail Mountain.
  • 421: New snow guns.
  • 19: Miles of new pipe.
  • 3: Mountain portals expected to open Nov. 20.

A blast of snow and frigid air has allowed the snowmaking crew on Vail Mountain to open up the full capacity of the resort’s new snowmaking system.

The project was finished in 2019, but Vail snowmaking manager Kate Schifani said this year will provide a real baseline for what the system can do.

In the wake of Sunday’s storm that dropped temperatures and put 10 inches of snow on the mountain, Schifani said the new system is getting a workout right now.

“With the storm we’ve been running continuously since 7 p.m. (Sunday night),” Schifani said. “We have some really tall piles in a lot of places — we’re pretty satisfied with our progress.”

The snow guns at Vail first started Oct. 15. But warm days have limited operations to nighttime hours before the storm.

Although the system has only been running full blast for a couple of days, Schifani said she’s optimistic the mountain can achieve the company’s goal of opening Nov. 20 with lifts running at Golden Peak, Vail Village and Lionshead.

“It’s fun to see us having and aggressive goal to start,” Schifani said. “It’s really going to pay off for our early season guests.”

And, with the new system’s concentration of equipment at higher elevations, Schifani believes guests will have good conditions from the first day on.

‘Ribbons of enjoyment’

Vail has several times in the past opened with only the Born Free run out of Lionshead. When that run is open with man-made snow, locals refer to it as the “icy ribbon of death.”

Schifani said the new system will provide guests with “many ribbons of enjoyment.”

While snowmakers still put in a lot of work in darkness, Schifani said the new system makes their work more efficient. The new system is automated, and every snow gun has its own weather monitoring station.

Schifani said the old system required crew members to turn on the guns when the conditions were right.

With the new system, the guns will come on automatically, when the crew is holding a safety meeting. That means crew members can check on the guns and make sure they’re all pointed where they need to be.

“We can really maximize that whole (operations) window,” she said.

Vail Mountain Operations Manager Brian Suhadolc came to Colorado in June after spending the previous 28 years at Park City. Suhadolc said he knew about the system here, of course, but “looking at the firepower, the number of guns — I was blown away by how big it was.”

While the snow piles are growing across Vail Mountain, everyone would prefer snow that falls from the sky. But, Schifani said, the mountain will have some “pretty awesome snow” from the new snowmaking system.

And that system will be ready through the season.

Schifani said the length of the snowmaking season depends in large part on weather and demand.

“We want snow for opening day and closing day,” she said. The snowmaking crew usually makes “a lot” of snow for the Burton U.S. Open Snowboard Championships, but that won’t be a concern this season, since the event has been put on hold for a year.

‘The coolest thing you can do’

Schifani has been making snow for the past seven years.

“It’s probably the coolest thing you can do,” she said. “When we first fired up that first night and saw the piles on the mountain, it’s super satisfying.”

And essential.

“There are a lot of things that make skiing (and snowboarding) more fun, but the only thing you really need is snow.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com.


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