November 29th, 2012: The evening snowmaking crew starts trickling in to the labyrinthine complex of mountain ops buildings at 3:30pm to change into uniform. Set at the base of Vail, this mix of offices and warehouses is home to the small army of men and women that keep this mountain going day in and day out.
As their 4pm to midnight shift nears, the 6-man crew collects around the truck that will take them up the mountain. After driving up to the slopes they park the truck and a day shift snowmaker comes to pick up Mike Kearl, their shift lead, on a snowmobile. From there they make loops to pick up the rest of the crew and head to snowmaking headquarters, Snow Central. “You could call it the heart of the operation”, says Mike. This building houses the water pumps, air compressors, hoses and the computerized operating system that allow the snowmakers to monitor and control every pump and snowgun.
As the day crew finishes rolling up hoses, the shift leads meet to discuss what’s been done during the day and finalize the game plan for the snowmaking that night. For the last couple of weeks Vail has seen sunny, dry weather with daytime temps reaching into the 40s. In order to make snow, temperatures have to at least get down to 30 but the best snow is made below 28 degrees. “We really like to have it go below 20 degrees”, says Snowmaking Manager David Tucholke, “we’re just barely getting there (each night)”. The average hours that they’ve been able to make snow in these weeks has been from 7pm to 11am. That means that the responsibility for actually blowing snow rests on the shoulders of the 2 night shifts.
“It’s one of the hardest physical jobs on the mountain”, says Tucholke, who’s been making snow at Vail for 32 years. “We try to scare people away in the hiring process…a snowmaker must want to work outside. It’s a cold, cruel world in snowmaking” he says with a laugh. This point is proven when day crew member Sam Rogers comes in to Snow Central a half hour after his shift was supposed to end, covered with mud and blowing on his hands to warm them up. He and a coworker have been working on fixing a leak, which meant hours digging into the snow and hard packed dirt.
“If we’re getting the temps we go all day,” says day crew lead and 3rd year snowmaker Grant McConnell, “if it stays cold…our efficiency goes through the roof”. When temperatures don’t cooperate, he says their tasks become much more focused on repairs and strategizing ways to “try to connect the dots for skiers.”
You can feel the restless energy of the evening crew as they listen to Mike explain what work lays ahead this night and assigns tasks. Dominic Hall, in his 2nd season of snowmaking, all but sprints out the door once the meeting is over. “Can we work now?” he says, the door banging closed behind him. Within minutes they’ve cleared out of Snow Central and driven their snowmobiles to snowguns across the front side of the mountain. It’s 5pm and temperatures are still in the mid-30s so the task at hand is mainly snowmobiling to snowguns and hoses, attaching them to the back of their snowmobiles and hauling them into position. The day crew has positioned many guns already but all of the hauling work has to be done when skiers and riders are off the hill.
As the moon rises, the crew drives past grooming cats making their laps on Born Free and up to the trails off of Avanti Express (#2) and around Mid-Vail. Gondola One is opening the next day for skiers and riders so they want to make sure Lion’s Way is fully covered. Their goal is to get Avanti open next, bolstering the few inches of natural snow that lies above Mid-Vail with a line of snowguns along Mid-Vail Express. By 6:15 the temperatures have dropped enough on these higher reaches of the mountain for the guns to start running and the crew is off their snowmobiles, adjusting hoses and guns, pinpoints of light from their headlamps sweeping across the snow.