Whistler-Blackcomb brings in the big guns 

Snowmaking fleet can produce up to 20 per cent more snow

Whistler-Blackcomb has just added some powerful artillery to its snowmaking arsenal for its seasonal battle against the elements.

Ten new snow guns arrived this week from the east coast and were flown into position on Blackcomb Mountain by helicopter almost as soon as they arrived.

These guns, called the Super Wizard fan guns, will be able to produce more snow than the older guns.

"We selected these snow guns because they can make snow at slightly warmer temperatures than the rest of the fleet," said Bob Pasch, Whistler-Blackcomb’s snowmaking manager.

"We can run them more and make more snow with them."

Now it’s just a matter of waiting for the right temperature. Typically the guns can make snow if it’s about —4 degrees and the humidity is low. These new fan guns can make snow about two degrees warmer.

Around 4 p.m. on Tuesday the conditions were just right and the guns were turned on.

"It looks like we have a reasonably good snowmaking window for 24 to 48 hours," said Pasch from the snowmaking centre at Base II.

His team of 41 staff has been working around the clock to capture any snowmaking opportunities that come their way, even it’s only for a few hours.

Even when the possibilities of making snow are very doubtful, the crews are on hand just in case there is a shift in the temperature.

"That’s simply because we can’t risk missing a snowmaking opportunity," said Pasch.

Every hour is crucial right now as the mountain pushes to open as much terrain as possible for the Christmas holidays.

The new guns represent about a half a million-dollar investment for Whistler-Blackcomb. The purchase was made in response to the poor early season conditions and it was not planned.

"It’s a pretty significant purchase at this time of year," said Christopher Nicolson, Whistler-Blackcomb’s public relations and communications manager.

"It’s good to have a successful parent company."

About eight new guns have joined more than 10 old guns en route from the bottom of Catskinner Chair to the bottom of Solar Coaster on Blackcomb. This positional tactic was used to give skiers and riders another trail to ski, as well as to reduce downloading on the Solar Coaster chair.

"If it was ideal snowmaking weather we could open that run in three to four days," said Pasch.

Two new guns have also been placed at the top of the Magic Chair to ensure there are some beginner runs open to the pubic as well.

On the Whistler side of things three air compressors have been added to their snow making capabilities.

Unlike the fan guns on Blackcomb, the Whistler guns are fuelled by air pressure from compressors. About a week ago a portable air plant was installed to allow crews to operate more guns at the same time.

There is also a big push on Whistler to get beginner runs near Olympic open before Christmas.

If the conditions are right and it gets cold enough, the snowmaking crews could be running up to 180 guns at a time between the two mountains.

Combining the new guns and the additional air compressors, Whistler-Blackcomb has increased its snowmaking production capacity by 20 per cent.

Two years ago, during a lean snow year, the mountain made 750-acre feet of snow. One acre is roughly the size of a football field.

If this year proves to be another lean year like the 2000-01 season, the added snow firing power means the mountain can make more than 900-acre feet of snow.

Sitting under a huge map of the mountains at the snowmaking centre, Pasch outlines the systematic operation involved in making snow and creating more terrain. It’s not just the snowmakers who are involved. It’s a team effort with the mountain managers, patrol weather forecasters and groomers all comparing and analyzing the weather forecasts.

The map on the wall above Pasch is titled "Snowmaking at its Best." There are small dots representing snow guns scattered over it. Each dot can light up when its corresponding gun is turned on. This light-bright effect gives staff some idea of where snowmaking efforts are being concentrated at any given time.

Snow is made between 650 and 1,900 metres, which is essentially from the bottom of the mountains to just above the Rendezvous.

Early in the season the guns start making snow near Catskinner and Jersey Cream Chairs on Blackcomb and Emerald and Franz’s Chairs on Whistler.

They make their way down the mountain as more and more terrain is added and more chairs are open.

The guns are fuelled by three reservoirs on the mountains, which hold a total of 36 million gallons of water.

"Over the course of the season we’ll have less pumping capacity as the flow in the creeks drops so we’re unable to replenish reservoirs to full capacity," said Pasch.

But the guns will convert somewhere between 100 to 150 million gallons of water into snow by the end of the season.

It’s hard to tell how much water will be used this year because every year is different.

Pasch said even if the snow starts falling from the sky in daily blizzards the guns will keep on pumping, provided the temperatures are right, so that there’s a deep enough snow pack to last through until the end of the season.

Although Pasch says this is the lowest he’s seen the snow pack at this time of year (he has been in Whistler since 1990), he seems confident that things are going to turn around.

"Definitely," he said.

"The weather is beginning a more winter-like trend. The inversion is gone. Snow systems are passing through."

Without the co-operation of Mother Nature Nicolson said it has been a humongous effort to date to get the snow on the ground.

"(But) we’re in the snow farming business," he said.

"Any opportunity to make snow somewhere, we’re making it."

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