Defying Mother Nature
A $4 million computerized system, 14 million gallons of water and a month of 12-hour shifts are all it takes to make enough snow for the World Cup downhill.
By G.D. Maxwell
There are two pictures in Bob Morton’s office. Well, it’s not really an office but it’s as close as anything Bob has to an office. What it actually is is Snow Making Central, the nerve centre and heart of all snow making action on Whistler Mountain. Under the guidance of Grooming and Slopes Maintenance manager Rod MacLeod, Bob leads the snow making teams on Whistler Mountain. The photos, pinned to his bulletin board, commemorate the first day of snow making last year and the first day of snow making this year.
Last year, the first year of Whistler’s 10 year agreement with the FIS. to kick off World Cup mania and get the White Circus rolling along for another season, the photo perfectly captures the meaning of the saying, "carrying coals to Newcastle." Snow guns blast their parabolic white rainbows high into the air and the snow crystals fall onto a blanket of, well, other snow. From edge to edge, the landscape is an embarrassment of snow. After months of worrying about having enough snow to run the race, nature was bountiful and the race was ultimately cancelled because of too much snow, the result not of over-zealous snow making but of the season’s first mega-dump timed perfectly to overwhelm the course and produce the best skiing many of us can remember.
Pinned next to it, this year’s picture stands in stark contrast. Snow guns still throw plumes of freezing water into the air. The result still falls to the ground as snow. But the overall effect is more one of optimistic pranksters trying to paint a golf course white. The first efforts of the snow maker’s art falls onto lush greenery surrounded by dirt and rock. It looks like a hopeless task.
That first day was just over a month ago, October 20th. Since then, 26 single-minded wizards in two crews have worked around the clock to paint the rest of the Dave Murray Downhill course white. Working virtually without days off and with only two days when no snow could be made at all, they’ve operated under the most trying conditions and have managed to perform a minor miracle. From the starting gates at the top to the Timing Flats at the bottom, there is enough snow on the course to satisfy FIS. officials and run a race.
Weather permitting, of course.
When the downhill starting time rolls around tomorrow, the weather, El Niño or bad luck could throw any number of insurmountable obstacles in the way. Rain, fog, snow, too much of any of these may delay or postpone the race until Sunday, the back-up day for the downhill. Persistent nastiness for the whole weekend — a condition virtually unknown in Whistler — could wipe it out completely. Those are the chances you take with any outdoor event. But if there is no race, it won’t be for a lack of snow.
At 8 a.m., last Monday morning, five days before the race, the snow making day shift was gathering around the base of Whistler Mountain. The night shift was straggling in. Coming off their 12-hour stint, they looked tired and weary and wet. Their eyes looked like eyes you see late at night, peering over the tops of coffee cups in truck stops along the Trans-Canada: bleary and red-rimmed but focused, alert and maybe just a little bit squirrelly.
The most striking thing was how hard it was to tell the night shift from the day shift. Wet clothes was the only real clue. "The long days and no days off have taken a toll," Bob told me later. Everyone I spoke with had pretty much the same story. "I think I took a day off. I’m not sure," Curtis Robinson said later in the day. "Yeah. I did. I’ve worked 21 days without a day off though. It gets hard to remember."
We started up the mountain in three pickup trucks. In low four-wheel drive with chains all around, we could make it up Expressway to a point just below the Weasel. From there it was a hike. "This is a big part of what’s making our job so hard," Bob said. "Transportation around the mountain is really tough right now. There’s too much snow to drive and not enough for snowmobiles."
Snowcats — grooming machines — and ATV’s ease the burden somewhat and are used whenever they’re available to ferry people and equipment to where they’re needed. And since the Weasel Workers have been out in force the past week, the Creekside Gondola has made the trip back up from the bottom of the run a lot easier. But the scanty snow coverage has mostly meant lots of hiking. "I think I’ve hiked the course more times than I’ve ever skied it," a voice in the back pipes up.
On this day, work crews are dispatched quickly to key points on the course where snow is still needed and can be made in the mild temperatures following the weekend’s wet weather. "We’ve only got today (Monday) and tomorrow to finish the job," Bob says matter of factly. "When Wednesday morning rolls around, we’ve got to be ready for inspection and training. We can still make snow later in the day and at night, but these are our last two full work days."
The task looks daunting. The control panel shows marginal temperatures at best along the parts of the course still most in need of insurance. Throughout the warm weather, the cold weather and the temperature inversions, stubbornly high temperatures have plagued the mid-mountain area leaving barely enough coverage at Expressway, Fall Away and the top of Sewer. All efforts will be made to throw more snow on those areas but the temperature, -0.1°C, is at the extreme edge of what’s possible.
After the W5 Foundation won a commitment for 10 year’s worth of World Cups, it was clear Whistler Mountain’s snow making system and equipment weren’t up to the task of preparing the course for a late November-early December race date. Before last season, a new system was installed along the length of Dave Murray Downhill. The key to the system was the K-3000 snow guns from Killington.
"We attended an industry show and saw these guns make snow at a temperature of 31.8°F," Bob said. "They weren’t the most efficient guns on the market, but for this exercise, efficiency wasn’t a priority. The ability to make snow in marginal conditions was."
They look like garden hose nozzles on steroids and are a far cry from the big fan guns you might be more familiar with. In the trade, they’re part of what’s known as an air-water system because they’re fed from a fixed network of both water and air under pressure. Ten inch pipes spider-web the mountain carrying water from the alpine reservoirs and air from an enormous electric compressor located at the control building and a whole fleet of diesel compressors down at the Timing Flats.
The guns are tethered by separate hoses to air outlets and fixed hydrants controlling the volume and pressure of water. Water is metered out of the hydrant in precise amounts using measurements as fine as one-sixteenth of a turn. An adjustment on the nozzle itself controls the final amount of water being mixed with air. Correctly adjusted and conditions permitting, a knowledgeable snow maker can control the quality of snow being pumped out from fine powder to heavy, wet snow, or as we like to call it, Wet Coast powder.
The key to controlling the quality of snow along the length of the race course is a computer system installed and tested just before this year’s snow making got under way. On a computer screen in the control building, a system developed by Snowmatic, a New Hampshire company, displays the entire race course a section at a time. Every pump house, every hydrant and every snow gun — including detailed information on the type of gun and whether it’s mounted on the ground or on a tower — from top to bottom is shown. Water pressure, air pressure and air temperature is monitored by sensors at eight locations along the course. An algorithm in the program uses this information and a digitized topographic map of the mountain to extrapolate conditions at each gun.
By clicking on a gun location, the person in the control building can relay detailed information to snow makers there, advising them of the optimal hydrant and gun setting needed to produce the quality of snow they’re shooting for. "The program’s set up to measure snow quality on a scale from +5 to -5," Bob explained. "+5 is very light, dry powder and -5 is heavy, wet snow. Somewhere around -2 is good snow for our purposes. It’s wet enough that it sets up hard and fast after it’s groomed and makes a great race course."
"The old way of doing this was to stand in front of the gun and stick your arm out. If whatever came out stuck to your sleeve, you were making snow," Bob said in mock seriousness. "It relied on everyone’s intuitive ‘feel’ for conditions. This system allows us to make pretty much the same quality of snow from the top of the course to the bottom."
It’s not all science though. Snow making is still at least one part art to two parts science. It’s a ballet of variables, the principal ones being air temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, air and water pressure, water quality and hang time, which is to say the time between water leaving the nozzle and snow hitting the ground.
But with a state of the art system and an experienced crew, Bob’s choreographing the variables to do something pretty much unheard of: making snow at the freezing point, 0.0°C. "We’ve been pushing the system to its limits," he said. "Prior to this, we wouldn’t even try to make snow warmer than -2°C. But we’ve been doing it at -0.1°C and even at 0."
Of course, without water to feed the system, it doesn’t matter whether you have top of the line guns or perfume atomizers. You might make snow, but you won’t make very much. Having a constant source of water would have been an insurmountable problem last year if nature’s contribution to the effort had been as miserly as it’s been this year. The old, creek-fed reservoir at the bottom of Whistler Bowl held a mere 2.5 million gallons, about enough to cover the course from the start to Toilet Bowl, but not very deep.
Water from there ran down to a pump house near the top of Franz’s and was pumped back uphill to the top of the downhill course. Water could also be drawn from a nearby creek to help replenish the reservoir.
Over the course of the summer, great yellow machines moved earth at the top of Whistler Mountain. The old reservoir’s capacity was more then trebled to 8 million gallons. A new reservoir was dug between the top of Emerald Chair — the new Green Chair — and Chunky’s.
With a capacity of 10 million gallons, the new reservoir combined with the old can easily provide the 14+ million gallons of water the crews need to convert to snow to cover the race course.
Added benefits of the new reservoir are its ability to feed snow making on other areas of the mountain and its location relative to the race course. A new supply pipe runs under Whiskey Jack feeding water at tremendously high pressures to that side of the mountain as well as to pump houses along the course’s length and thus, into the hands of the snow making crews.
By 10:30, the crews began to make their way back to the control building. Their "gun runs" complete and the temperature, albeit marginal, holding steady, they enjoy the luxury of time to eat some lunch. "When things hold steady, we can get a little down time," Bob said. "But on days when the temperature or wind is changing all the time, we’re always on the run, turning guns on and off, making adjustments or just checking to make sure they’re all still making snow, not slop."
So with two days left how was it? Tagging along with Curtis Robinson, we hiked the length of the course. Cresting the small hill between Papoose and the top of Orange Chair, the starting area looked tempting and I could feel the impatience to ski stronger than anytime in this entire, frustrating month. From the start gates to the Love Shack, the grooming was flawless and the snow was set up hard and fast. Weasels were installing fencing along racer’s right as we slid on our butts past them.
From the top of Toilet Bowl — no one on the mountain uses the new names for features on the course — the efforts of summer groomers could really be seen. "We had 15 people working two months with rakes and shovels, smoothing the course and creating windrows on the steep sections so grass seed could take root instead of being washed off," Dan Scarratt told me later. Their effort, combined with the snow makers and winch cat drivers, has produced a quick drop down to the Carousel that was smooth and almost featureless.
More snow was being blown at Carousel to soften the compression racers will face in that hard left turn after they’ve picked up speed on Toilet Bowl. They’ll need the help to set up for the fast right into the Weasel’s drop of death. Coverage on the Weasel is side to side and the groomers have set it up hard and fast.
At Expressway and into Fall Away, you could see just how frustrating that band of warm air had been. Only recently had enough snow been blown onto that section of the course to make it look like the groomers could work their magic and make that section of the course skiable.
Throughout the Sewer, the snow guns were howling and things were looking optimistic, although by the time we reached Coach’s Corner, the snow was reminiscent of spring skiing: wet, heavy and soft.
Weasels worked everywhere along the lower third of the course, rigging safety netting, moving snow, erecting fences. The rains over the weekend hadn’t washed away the snow, there was still plenty at Hot Air and the Timing Flats, but it was wet and heavy and reminded me of what the snow was like last time I skied there... in April. It was going to take some cooler temperatures and prodigious grooming to set up that part of the course.
As darkness crept up the mountain and ran the remaining daylight toward the peak, spirits soared in the control building as the computer told us temperatures were dropping. Bob was well into developing the evening’s plan of attack and getting ready to turn things over to David Ough, night crew chief, when several of us began to make our way down the mountain.
If there’s any racing over the next two days, Rod MacLeod and Bob Morton will probably do the self-effacing thing and give the credit to organizers and Weasel Workers and the other people who laboured hard to pull it all off. But without the two dozen men and women working 12 hour shifts, day and night, almost without break for the last month, everybody else could’ve packed their tents and gone home. The snow makers made it happen this year.