Wrangling the region’s ice rinks isn’t easy
Thoughts of ice skating outdoors conjure images of scarves, mittens and perhaps a romantic backdrop of lightly falling snow.
It’s lovely and ideal. But the reality is that maintaining an ice rink in the Sierra Nevada ” where it snows, blows, rains and shines ” is about as easy as keeping sand out of Tahoe.
Maintaining steady ice temperatures, keeping rinks smooth and clean of snow, and managing high-tech underground systems is a full-time job for rink managers and staff. It requires hard labor, big ideas, and lots of expensive equipment.
The Village-at-Northstar is continuing to evolve and expand, and in the middle of it all, literally, is a 9,000-square-foot ice rink that has the potential to be more than just a winter hot spot.
Northstar is currently discussing options to keep its rink open year round, by either melting away the ice and temporarily replacing it with a high-impact polyethylene plastic floor, or by covering the ice during daylight hours and opening only for evening skating, according to Northstar Marketing Director Nicole Klay.
If the resort decides to go with a synthetic ice floor, it would make Northstar’s the only rink in North America to have one. The problem, though, is it isn’t easy to make a call to nearby colleague for advice and tips.
It’s a lofty idea that has some rink employees eager to see a finished project, but it’s a big decision that is far from final.
“We are working towards a feasible solution for this summer,” Klay said.
At is stands, the rink already requires more than 30 man-hours a day in the winter just to keep the ice smooth and maintained, according to Tom Davis, rink maintenance manager.
And on Monday morning, after an evening of snow, it took two dumptruck loads to clear away 3 inches of fluff.
To keep the rink cold and dry, and underground bunker was built to house massive tanks of Freon and 10-degree brine water that is pumped through a piping system below the rink that radiates cold temperatures. That same system also run’s the village’s air conditioning.
So far, that effort seems to be worth it.
“The rink has been really popular since we opened,” said Klay. “It’s become the hub of the village and a great alternative for people who aren’t skiing.”
Squaw Valley’s 20,000-square-foot Olympic Ice Pavilion at High Camp has been open year-round for about 15 years, and there is nothing synthetic about it. Charlie Thurston, operations manager for the pavilion, could well be considered the Godfather of outdoor ice rinks for the lengths he has gone to sustain a one-of-a-kind rink at 8,200 feet.
“When they hired me 16 years ago to open an outdoor rink on top of a mountain, I thought they were crazy,” Thurston said. “Imagine trying to freeze ice cream in the sun and wind.
“But Alex (Cushing) was willing to spend the money to get the right equipment; fine tuning and engineering make this work.”
Squaw’s artificially refrigerated rink is kept at 20-something degrees by way of 3,000 gallons of coolant that circulates under the ice in a system similar to Northstar’s. The difference is that Squaw’s state-of-the-art compression system is so efficient that it only uses 500 gallons of water each day, compared to a typical rink’s use of 30,000 gallons, according to Thurston.
And with an average annual snowfall of 450 inches, winds that gusts to 80 miles per hour, and 300 days of sunshine a year, it takes an entire maintenance fleet of snowblowing and grooming equipment to keep the rink clear.
“I came up this [Thursday] morning and there was between 6 inches to 3 feet of snow on the ice,” Thurston said. “I blade the snow, then blow it, then behind that, the Zamboni resurfaces it.”
Thurston said it took him an hour to complete the process on his own, but with three people working in conjunction, it would have taken 15 minutes to clear all 20,000 square feet.
“It’s awesome,” he said, “but it took me 16 years to get it down to a science.”
So the next time you lace up those skates and wobble onto the rink, keep in mind that you’re not just gliding on frozen water.
“There is someone on the ice from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m.,” Thurston said. “Twenty-four hours a day seven days a week.”
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