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Thu, Dec

Snowmaking At Cross Country Ski Areas

CanmoreOctRace

Canmore Nordic Center hosts race on machine made snow. (Canmore Nordic)

As the days become colder and winter approaches the ski season beckons, but about 40 cross country (XC) ski areas are no longer waiting for the snow to fly to begin their ski season because they’ve invested in snowmaking, just like their alpine ski area cousins.

More and more XC ski areas are investing in snowmaking. Trapp Family Lodge steeped in tradition in Stowe, Vermont is included in this ever increasing list of XC ski resort snowmakers. The list of XC ski area operators that produce machine-made snow includes for example, Rikert Nordic CenterCraftsbury Outdoor Center, Sleepy Hollow Inn, and Mountain Top Resort, in Vermont; Adventure Center at Waterville Valley, Bretton Woods Nordic Center, Great Glen Trails and Gunstock Mountain in N.H., and Pineland Farms in Maine; Weston Ski Track in Mass.; the Olympic Sports Complex in Lake Placid, N.Y.; Cross Country Ski Headquarters in Mich; Breckenridge Nordic Center and Frisco Nordic Center in Colo.; and Royal Gorge in Calif.

Rikert Nordic Center doubled ski days.(Rikert)

Why did these XC ski areas decide to invest in a snowmaking operation? The availability of less expensive and portable snowmaking systems are main motivations, but other business-driven issues are relevant too such as filling lodge rooms and fulfilling season pass holders' desire to extend the ski season beyond Mother Nature's whim.

Twenty years ago, one industry consultant dubbed the XC ski resort quandary as "precipitation roulette." Some business-oriented reasons to install snowmaking include operational security to guarantee skiing programs and staffing; competitive advantage against other XC ski resorts that do not have machine-made snow; and guaranteeing snow cover in important holiday periods (which can represent more than 30 percent of annual winter business).

The necessary elements of a snowmaking operation include cold temperatures, water, power, and system components such as piping, pumps, compressors, and snow guns. The power requires both manpower and energy supplied by electricity or fuel. There are many industry horror stories about the night hours and difficulty of the work associated with snowmaking for XC skiing. Getting the snow to efficiently cover a narrow corridor trail is also a challenge. Many operations simply cover a field and then move the snow to the trails.

Most commendable is Sleepy Hollow Inn's system in Huntington, Vermont, which is powered by solar energy. Rikert Nordic Center increased from an average of 70 days of operation before snowmaking was added to 140 days without inseason closures. The Adventure Center at Waterville Valley makes snow to cover its town square area and a beginner's loop in a field. Snowmakers used machine-made snow to cover trails at Canmore Nordic Centre and the Olympic Sports Complex to run early season programs for racing teams from across North America. 

Killington starts to make snow when the grass is still green. (Killington)

But the most significant issue to embark on snowmaking has always been the investment required for many XC ski businesses that are small and seasonal. The operators at Mountain Top Resort in Chittenden, Vermont decided that snowmaking was a higher priority than selling retail products at the XC ski center. Snowmaking supports so many aspects of the business from rental operations and ski lessons to dog sledding and snowshoeing. In terms of the guest perspective, winter guests expect to book travel to a destination and get the experience that was desired… and that includes snow.

Who knows, perhaps there will be a day sometime soon when snowmaking will be a basic aspect of XC ski area operations.

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