Howelsen Hill’s future may depend on snowmaking efforts |

Howelsen Hill’s future may depend on snowmaking efforts

A snowmaking gun sends a cloud of snow into the air at Howelsen Hill Ski Area in downtown Steamboat Springs in late November. Improved equipment has reduced the amount of water needed to make snow, while the lack of natural snowstorms has prompted an increased for snowmaking. Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A series of winter storms the past several days brought much-needed snow to the mountain slopes surrounding Steamboat Springs and a sense of relief to Howelsen Hill Ski Area Supervisor Robbie Shine.

“We did make snow longer this year, and we actually left our guns out there just in case this last storm kind of was more like the storms that we had in January,” Shine said. “We were totally prepared to make snow to get through the rest of the season. … I was worried, as everyone in this valley should be, with the lack of snow, but the storm cycle certainly produced last week, and, hopefully, it continues through this week.”

The idea of running snow guns into February is a rare occurrence in the skiing industry, but Shine said this has been one of those years. Normally, by the end of December or early January, the snowmaking season has run its course at Howelsen Hill, but this year, the guns were running Jan. 18. Shine was worried he was going to need more snow to make it to the last day of the season, which will be March 14.

Shine said snowmaking has been a key to Howelsen’s success this season, and he believes the ability to make snow efficiently will only get more important in the future.

Howelsen Hill logged 26 days of snowmaking before it opened to the public Nov. 30 for the start of the 2020-21 season. There was enough snow to cover the full face and all of the ski jumps. In December crews made snow on 14 days allowing the ski area to open all of its green and blue runs. And for the first time ever, snow was made on Mile Run.

Without those efforts, Shine said it was more than likely that Howelsen Hill would not have opened until February. Crews also made snow three times in January.

“I think moving forward, snowmaking is going to be the game changer,” Shine said. “I think there is a good chance we might not see the big storms that we used to see, and we’re going to have to be prepared to shift gears and operate different aspects. Hopefully, we can rise to the challenge and be at the top of that list.”

Shine said snowmaking improvements at Howelsen have allowed him to make more snow this winter, at higher temperatures while using half the amount of water. He said it is also helpful that many of his crew members also run the lifts, which has given him the opportunity to make additional snow. He said investments in snowmaking equipment, including additional guns and nozzles that use less water, have also made a difference.

“We have ‘re-nozzled’ all of our guns to throw out less water at certain times, so we’re more efficient in that aspect,” Shine said.

The nozzles also have expanded the temperature range for when snow can be made.

Shine said his crews also are making snow in areas where Howelsen Hill is more stable and then pushing what they need to the steeper areas to reduce the frequency of slides.

“It’s just being a better steward of the hill, because obviously we’ve had landslides in the past,” Shine said.

The improved snowmaking efforts have also paid off for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.

“The Howelsen Hill staff did an incredible job this November and December to take advantage of every single possible snowmaking window and get the hill ready for opening day and for our training,” said SSWSC Athletics Director Dave Stewart. “We have had awesome training every day since we started in late November, and that’s thanks to Robbie and his crew getting out there and working long nights … and keeping the guns going later in the year to do some patch work where needed.”

The lack of snow comes at a time when Howelsen Hill is enjoying one of its best winters in recent memory. Season pass sales at the downtown ski area are up 100% and ticket sales up 70%. The city-owned ski area also has seen a strong response to its Ski Free Sundays, which have drawn nearly 900 people each week this year despite limitations that were put in place because of COVID-19.

The growing popularity of the downtown ski area this winter also has come with a few challenges. Shine said the increased use means that more snow is being scraped off the hill — one of the reasons he thought he needed more snow before the latest round of storms.

“We’ve been grateful that our snowmaking was great early season, so that we have had great coverage this entire season,” Shine said. “We just need to adapt to our numbers and to what is being presented in front of us.”

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