Human-made: With abnormal weather, Steamboat Resort relying heavily on snowmaking for Opening Day

Snowguns crank out human-made snow on the slopes of Steamboat Resort on Nov. 17 in Steamboat Springs.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

With abnormally low snow levels, most of the snow skiers and snowboarders will encounter Saturday during Steamboat Resort’s Opening Day will be manufactured.

Though they won’t be accessible to resortgoers at the start, some higher points of the mountain, such as Storm Peak, have received decent snow, according to Dave Hunter, vice president of resort operations for Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp.

Ski Corp. employees typically begin making snow at the end of October and throughout November, when temperatures drop low enough to take river water and turn it into snow. But Ryan Olson, snowmaking manager with Ski Corp., said the unusually warm temperatures have forced snowmakers to begin operations much later this year, with fewer opportunities to blow snow on cold nights.

“Whereas we usually get three or four cold snaps throughout November, we’ve only had one or two this year,” Olson said. “That has kind of slowed us down.”

READ MORE: What will be open for Saturday’s Opening Day?

Olson said the snow will likely hold the resort through its entire season, with long-awaited natural powder hopefully covering the base layer of prepared snow.

“Once we get the snow down, it tends to stick around for a long time,” Olson said. “Unless it gets way up into the 70s, we might lose a little bit of snow, but we don’t lose enough to have to close down.”

Ski Corp. makes its snow using water from the Yampa River, accessed through a pipe under Walton Pond. The pipe runs up to the resort, with a series of pumps and distribution centers along the mountain.

Hunter said 80% of the snow made flows back into the Yampa River in spring as the resort prepares to close for the season and ranchers begin pulling water for their operations.

“We are very thankful and blessed based on the founders of the resort and the water rights that they put in place, and we continue to work with our local partners,” Hunter said.

Though the resort’s water rights dictate how much snow can be pulled from the river, Hunter declined to say what that limit is.

“Our water rights are something that are ours, and they’re protected,” Hunter added. “We know exactly what we’re able to take, and we work within those parameters.”

Because of the warming temperatures and lack of snowfall, Steamboat’s famous Champagne Powder — referring to the fluffy, light snow unique to the Yampa Valley — may not arrive until later in the season, as Olson said it is difficult to replicate that type of snow through a snowmaking gun.

“We can make super light, fluffy snow, but the problem with that is it would compact very quickly and it wouldn’t last very long,” Olson said. “This snow is not as fluffy and it is denser, but that’s actually how we want it so that it sticks around and helps people move around when we get the light, fluffy stuff from the sky.”

Even in the best of conditions, Olson said the resort always makes snow in the beginning of the season.

In efforts to be conscious of a warming planet and more severe droughts each year, Hunter said the resort is extremely environmentally conscious in the way it makes snow.

“We pride ourselves on utilizing the most sustainable snowmaking systems,” Hunter said. “That is something that we are hyper-focused on any season, including this season.”

Olson said Ski Corp. purchased more efficient snowmaking guns decades ago, which has helped snowmakers do their jobs while using less energy and water.

“They’ve really come up with a lot of ways in the past 40 years to reduce the energy consumption for making snow,” Olson said.

The resort typically makes snow through the end of December, then natural snow carries the mountain through January to the end of the season. Ski Corp. normally likes to have much more snow made before Opening Day than there is this week.

“We can be extremely productive and efficient in a very short time if Mother Nature is cooperating,” Hunter said. “This time of the year for us is mainly all about cold temperatures and the ability to maximize our capabilities and our efficiencies in our snowmaking system, but when it’s marginal like it has been, we’re not able to be as efficient and maximize our capabilities.”

In addition to a lack of snow, guests will also notice the resort’s ongoing construction process — notably through the fences surrounding some areas.

“It’s not your average construction fence, it’s very animated with some great signage and great storytelling,” Hunter said.

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