Peter Minks sips a Newcastle beer at 9:05 a.m. Wednesday, following a graveyard shift making snow at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort.
After another dark, bitterly cold night spent in a man-made snow storm, he’s ready for a shift-ending breakfast.
Nearly 60 years old, Minks has spent his last 15 years on the slopes of Alpine Meadows, coaxing snow from a maze of machinery when winter storms are scarce. It’s a rugged life that he enjoys.
“I love making snow and I love skiing this mountain,” Minks said.
Snowmakers are money makers for local ski resorts, which often depend on this nocturnal workforce to put snow on the ground for some of the ski industry’s most lucrative weekends ” Christmas and New Year’s.
A typical night in the life of a snowmaker at Squaw starts about 7:30 p.m., said Mark Meyer, Squaw Valley USA snowmaking manager, in an e-mail to the Sierra Sun.
“The alarm goes off and you are tired from the night before, you roll out of bed and search for the warmest clothes you can find, then brave the icy roads to work,” Meyer said.
In low-snow years, heavy snowmaking can stretch later into the season. This season, although it’s the middle of January, workers are busy blowing man-made snow just as night falls.
“When most people are snuggling into their beds, we are on a snowmobile and up the mountain to warm up fan guns, drag out sled guns and hoses,” Meyer said.
Making snow requires a solid understanding of science and weather. While most snowmakers don’t have degrees in chemistry or meteorology, they closely follow temperature, humidity and weather patterns. Based on a half dozen different forecasts, they decide if, when and where to make snow, said Dave Thatcher, snowmaking and snow removal manager at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort.
“Basically they’re just weather nerds,” said Rachael Woods, Alpine Meadows spokesperson.
Ideal snowmaking conditions generally include temperatures at or below 28 degrees, coupled with dry air.
“The colder it gets the more snow we can make,” Meyer said.
Snowmaking nozzles shoot compressed air and water across the mountain. Once the water droplet is propelled into the air, its temperature quickly drops and it turns to snow, Meyer said.
“The amount of snow we make in a season all depends on if we get help from Mother Nature,” Meyer said.
Squaw Valley typically pumps 15 million gallons of water in a season, which is equivalent to 75 acres of snow at about a foot deep. With this year’s colder-than-normal weather and spotty snow, Squaw has pumped more than 20 million gallons, said Meyer.
Alpine Meadows makes 20 to 30 million gallons of snow each year, covering roughly 200 total acres, Thatcher said.
“The cost of making snow differs from mountain to mountain,” Meyer said. “Let’s just say it costs a lot.”
Because of the price of making snow, ski resorts have to develop a good strategy for when and where they are going to use their machines.
“We are a production plant. That is what we do ” ‘that’ being snow. We want to produce the best product we can,” Thatcher said.
A lot of the work involved in snowmaking is balancing the cost of running the machines with the benefits of ticket sales. Efficiency is key, so snowmakers make sure they don’t waste power making snow where it won’t do any good and are careful to make snow when it will stick around.
“Without snowmaking in California, resorts may not open before Christmas. And a big part of the ski industry’s income comes from this time of year,” Meyer said.
Water is not a big expense, but the power it takes to run the pumps is costly. And though snowmaking itself is not too hard on the environment, the power resources can be, Thatcher said.
Alpine Meadows is currently working with Sierra Pacific Power to use green energy sources like wind or solar power, Thatcher said.
There’s a big push in the ski industry to use renewable resources, he said.
“The most dangerous part of my job, besides working around 480 volts of electricity and 900 pounds of water pressure and compressed air,” Meyer said, “is being out on the mountain in the middle of the night with icy, windy conditions on a snowmobile.”
Snowmakers are at the mercy of the elements including sub-freezing temperatures and high winds. The snowmobiles and machinery add another dimension of danger to the job.
The bottom line is that it’s loud, dangerous and dark work, Thatcher said.
“I just love the job. It’s a lot of fun. Unpredictable,” he said. “When it’s going it’s go, go, go … and the camaraderie is unbelievable.”