Mountain Experts: Northstar’s Matt Reeder
December 23, 2008
NORTHSTAR-AT-TAHOE “-When Northstar-At-Tahoe Snow Surfaces Manager Matt Reeder arrived for work at 11 p.m. the night before the resort’s Dec. 6 opening day, all weather forecasts pointed to yet another classic round in his battle to open the slopes.
The stakes were high in that night’s prize fight as guests would arrive just a few hours after dawn, and the ski runs projected to open still needed significant snow coverage. Compounding the drama of the evening’s snowmaking struggle was that Reeder’s infamous opponent, as it had been the previous two nights, was a loathsome beast ” a temperature inversion.
Temperature inversions (when the cold night air slowly settles to lower elevations leaving warmer air at higher elevations) are a snowmaker’s worst nightmare. The ability to make snow lives and dies based on freezing outside temperatures and an inversion will fluctuate temperatures unpredictably above and below that critical temperature, or in the worst case, leave the entire mountain too warm to blow snow at all.
Freezing temperatures are crucial for snowmaking because of the basic principles behind the operation. To make snow, cold water and air are mixed at high pressure and blown into the sky as a mist. As long as the outside temperature is cold enough, the water droplet in the mist will freeze and fall to the ground as an ice crystal, a manmade snowflake.
In Reeder’s 32 years of snowmaking experience he has witnessed inversion differences of as much as 20 degrees, but the inversion that night was a more typical 5 to 10 degrees. Night time lows were only expected to hit 22 degrees, however, so the inversion was more than enough to push temperatures past the high end of most snow guns operable temperature window ” 28 degrees.
As Northstar-At-Tahoe is home to North Tahoe’s most extensive snowmaking system, including 250 snow guns of three different styles, Reeder had a solid arsenal of firepower at his disposal. The tricky part was deciding which snow guns to prioritize and making sure that once turned on, the guns were steadily productive.
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“We ran 120 guns that night, but only had 80 on at any one time,” said Reeder. “The night started out cold up top so we chased the inversion temps down the hill, moving gun to gun, turning off guns that got too warm, and turning on lower guns that eventually dropped to temperature.”
In addition to manually checking each gun, Reeder had a high-tech advantage in that nearly all the guns employed that evening were automated with weather instruments that monitor temperature and humidity. When he wasn’t out on the hill himself, Reeder could keep tabs on temperature changes by watching a battery of computer monitors.
Having three different snow gun types (fan guns, stick guns, and air/water ground guns), each with their own ideal temperature range, also benefited Reeder.
“It’s like having a full bag of golf clubs,” said Reeder. “No matter how the temperature swung we always had something we could turn on somewhere.”
By the time the sun dawned at 7 a.m., Northstar’s snow guns had pumped through three million gallons of water creating roughly 12 acres of snow a foot deep. The night’s totals were a quarter of the 12 million gallons of water Northstar used to create the three 100 percent manmade ski runs that opened that morning.
“I was really pleased with the night’s outcome,” said Reeder. “It took a lot of hard work, coordination, and communication to get it done, but we exceeded all expectations getting the Arrow chair and the Vista chair open.”
The remarkable skiing conditions at Northstar that opening day were indeed the true testament to Reeder and his crew’s convincing victory over the inversion. The runs were plenty wide for eager skiers and riders to rip glorious carves and the terrain park crew even had enough space to build a solid mini-park.
Ear to ear smiles on both guest’s and employee’s faces that day told the rest of the story.
“Snowmaking is never easy but it’s very satisfying to see the trickle down effect of your efforts,” said Reeder. “Once we make the snow, people can work, people can ski, and the resort can sell cheeseburgers. Our work becomes one of the most important pieces of the entire operation.”
For more information, visit http://www.northstar-at-tahoe.com.