Without snowmaking to fill in nature’s gaps, the chairlifts wouldn’t be running right now. And as Aspen Skiing Company taps area creeks to make it possible, it’s not without concern that it’s depleting natural resources.
It’s late November on Aspen Mountain. You should be hearing a steady low roar from the snow-making machines that line the Little Nell ski run, but tonight, it’s just the hum of generators and crunch of truck tires on dirt. Not even a snowmobile.
It’s 27.5 degrees, too warm for the high-efficiency, automated machines to kick on, but snowmakers Patrick Cooke and Chaz Peiffer said the forecast, “Looks just outstanding. We’ve got -1 (degrees), I think, a week from Saturday.”
The temperatures did drop, and with some help from Mother Nature, Cooke and the crew of snowmakers on Aspen Mountain set the foundation for some post-Thanksgiving turns, albeit later than usual.
The slow start to the season had skiers and riders nervous, but Aspen Skiing Company’s sustainability guru Auden Schendler said the warm weather wasn’t all bad news.
“You could argue that if you just cared about efficiency with snowmaking, the ideal year would be that it's way too hot until the moment you want to make snow and then it gets cold and you make a lot of snow,” Schendler said.
Of course, most skiers don’t only care about efficiency. Most want to ski, as much as possible and as early in the season as possible. This sets up a tricky situation: A warming climate is undeniably detrimental to the ski industry, but the man-made snow solution is, at best, a wet band-aid.
“So you’re using a very energy-intensive fix to deal with a changing climate, and the fix cannibalizes the very climate you care about,” Schendler said.
So, from a business standpoint, how does SkiCo adapt? Besides making sure lifts can take people downhill, too, planning for warm-weather business, like the proposed recreation park at Snowmass, and lobbying for environmental action, Schendler admits snowmaking is the best that resorts can do.
That process, particularly on Aspen Mountain, takes a lot of energy and millions and millions of gallons of water.
Snowmaking systems on SkiCo’s four mountains pull from the nearest streams: Highlands uses Castle Creek, Buttermilk pulls from Maroon Creek, and Snowmass takes from Snowmass Creek. Aspen Mountain is somewhat unusual in that snowmaking operations use treated city water, and that water has to be pumped from town all the way up to 10,625 feet.
Snowmaker Patrick Cooke stands outside the SkiCo’s pumphouse on Little Nell, where compressors send air and water all over the mountain through underground pipes.
“We pump uphill with four pumps to the Ruthie’s restaurant, where we have a booster pumphouse, and there’s three more pumps in there, which get us up over the hill,” Cooke said.
From there, it goes into the storage pond near the Gent’s Ridge lift. Cooke said that pond holds about 3 or 3.5 million gallons of water — not even one-tenth of the water consumed by snowmaking operations on Ajax. So that uphill pumping to refill the pond happens regularly and takes a lot of energy.
SkiCo has worked to reduce consumption and improve efficiency in dozens of snowmaking machines across the four mountains, according to Schendler. Today’s machines use about 96 percent less energy than dated models, and the guns that come on automatically based on temperature help with conserving water and energy, too. Replacing old guns is very expensive, as higher efficiency machines go for anywhere between $8,000 to $30,000 each.
Schendler said the biggest improvement recently has been at Snowmass. Pulling water from mountain streams in the winter, when flows are at their lowest points, can be damaging to the environment. In 2012, SkiCo retained the rights to store water at Ziegler Reservoir and now can pull water during peak runoff to be used months later.
“This is a giant environmental victory, both because it protects Snowmass Creek, but also it makes us able to make snow more efficiently,” Schendler said.
Schendler also points out that efficiency in snowmaking is only a small fraction of dealing with a warming world.
“We’ve always seen climate change as something you can’t adapt to. We need to change how we’re fueling our economy,” Schendler said. “And we think we are a perfect spokesman to advocate for that change because we’re utterly dependent on the climate.”
This is especially clear as snowmaking operations rely on cold weather, and Aspen is seeing fewer and fewer days with sub-freezing temperatures. The reality of warmer Novembers doesn’t ease pressure from skiers and riders who want to hit the slopes by Thanksgiving.
“I’d like the industry as a whole to declare a disarmament and say, ‘we’ll open when it snows,’ and be based on natural cycles. But, as you know, we don’t live in that kind of a world,” Schendler said.