SUN VALLEY • A recent snow dumping on Bald Mountain meant that Dennis Harper could take a breather for one of the first times since Halloween.
“I’m happy to step aside and give Mother Nature an opportunity to take over. We can’t compete with Mother Nature,” said Harper, Sun Valley’s snowmaking manager.
Maybe so. But Harper and the 18 men and women who work for him around the clock performed miracles, according to the skiers and boarders who frequent Sun Valley.
Using water and compressed air, they covered Sun Valley’s ski hill in white, allowing skiers and boarders to play in the snow when ski resorts in Utah, California and other states had little or no terrain open.
By the time Sun Valley opened to 2,600 skiers on Thanksgiving Day, Sun Valley had used 62 million gallons of water — 20 million gallons more than last year at the same time. It was enough to fill a hundred Olympic-sized swimming pools, said Snowmaker Corey Allen.
“What they’ve done is nothing short of spectacular,” said Bob Gordon, who owns Formula Sports ski shop in Ketchum. “The snowmaking saved our bacon. But, beyond that, it’s every bit as good as the real stuff and maybe even better. It’s very consistent and grooms out real well. And Sun Valley does a fantastic job of working it at night so it’s grippy and fun. We’ve had excellent conditions from Thanksgiving Day onward whether we had natural snow or not.”
Harper is leading free snowmaking tours this year to show how his crew salvaged the first two months of the ski season for Idaho skiers.
The free 90-minute tours are offered at 11 a.m. Thursdays and Saturdays. Up to 15 people can take part in each. But on this particular day few people could be persuaded to leave the creamy powder building up on the slopes to take the tour.
Those of us who did followed Harper onto the gondola, which whisked them to the Roundhouse Restaurant. There they cruised down a cat track onto the gentle Roundhouse Slope. Instead of following it straight down, however, they angled to the right heading for a clump of trees along the edge of the slope.
Hidden among the trees was Snowmaking Central — a big concrete building that houses fire horses, snow gun parts, air compressors and the computerized system that monitors Sun Valley’s 555 snow guns.
Harper has been watching the snow all his life, first as a sugar beet farmer in the Raft River Valley south of Burley and now as Sun Valley’s snowmaking manager.
Running Sun Valley’s snowmaking system full bore uses about the same amount of water as two farming pivots that cover 250 acres each, he said.
“And we have more fun per gallon with our water than the farmers do,” he added.
Harper described how his crew starts with what they call “production snow,” putting more water in the snow to make a good hard base that neither skiers nor snow groomers will break through. It was easier building that base this year with the lack of natural snow than last year when Baldy was besieged by natural snow during November and December.
The snowmakers build mountains up to 25 feet tall, which the groomers then spread over the mountain. Once the base is built, the snowmakers change the formula to make a drier, skiable snow, refreshing each slope every couple days with a silky coating of up to two inches of snow.
“People call it gun powder skiing,” Harper said.
Sun Valley has pumped 158 million gallons of water to cover Baldy so far this year. It’s pumped 34 million gallons on Dollar Mountain, which sports Sun Valley’s new super pipe and an ever-expanding terrain park.
Sun Valley pulls some of its water out of the Big Wood River and the rest from wells. It also buys $20,000 to $30,000 of water from the city of Sun Valley to make snow for Dollar Mountain.
Sun Valley Owner Earl Holding, who bought Sun Valley following the disastrous winter of 1976-77 when little snow fell, immediately made snowmaking one of his priorities, installing 38 miles of pipe beneath the slopes. Over the years he’s improved the guns, adding taller guns that allow the water mist to hang in the air longer, thereby producing better snow.
Just recently, Sun Valley bought some new energy-efficient snow guns that use a tenth of the energy of the older guns.
Not only is Sun Valley’s $16 million snowmaking system the largest in North America, but it provides some of the best manmade snow, thanks to the automation and types of guns it uses.
Harper noted he had just returned from a snowmaking convention held at Northstar-at-Tahoe where the resort was open only because of its manmade snow.
“Their system is not automized and you could tell they weren’t refreshing the snow because it was hard. Their best skiing was the same as our worst,” Harper said.
Sun Valley’s $1.5 million computer system checks temperature and humidity at 110 weather stations installed along the snow gun lines, adjusting the snow that’s put out according to the temperatures and wind. It pumps more water out as temperature dips. While the snow guns will run at 30 degrees, it has to be 16 degrees or cooler to hit capacity.
It takes two minutes for the system to survey the situation to determine how many guns can run and boot up according to the priorities that the snowmaking crew has identified.
When staff made the adjustments manually weather conditions often changed by the time they went to the next gun, Harper said.
“We’re experimenting this year to see how long the snow can sit and remain silky.”
When the storms do come, as they came this past week, it saves Sun Valley about $10,000 to $15,000 a day in electrical bills, Harper said.
But Sun Valley officials don’t regret one cent of that electric bill, when they consider what might have been.
“Imagine what it would have been like if we didn’t have the product. We might have had one or two runs open at most — probably College and Flying Squirrel like the old days,” said Jack Sibbach, the resort’s marketing director. “Our numbers have been steady all winter — Christmas was good. And all this had a huge effect on the valley’s economy. We haven’t had a single complaint on the condition of the snow, either, because these guys have put out such a fabulous product.”