January 13, 2014

Skiing’s Man-Made Future

If You Build It, They May or May Not Come

Skiing's Man-Made Future

As I contemplate the reality of what appears to be the worst Sierra winter any of us have ever seen, I find myself thinking about the obvious importance snowmaking is going to have for the survival of many ski areas. We're back from a week in Flagstaff, skiing the Arizona Snowbowl, which has recently installed (after endless legal battles) a working snowmaking system.

Snowmaking has permitted the Snowbowl to open for the whole of this year's critical holiday season despite poor natural snowfall—but does that make it a success? Where Southern California resorts like Snow Summit and Snow Valley are able to run on a 12" base with reasonably acceptable results, the Snow Bowl is not. Like Mammoth, it's a volcano, made entirely of loose rock and cinders, which soon work their way through a minimal snowpack, becoming embedded in every part of it.

This leads to the disconcerting experience of hearing rocks continuously hitting your ski tips as you ski down—the sound is surprisingly loud, like whacking golf balls. And all those rocks, loose and otherwise, do irreparable damage to your skis. If you're skiing the Snowbowl right now, you're using rock skis, one way or another. So be it, you say; there is a core group of skiers who will show up and ski it whatever it is as long as the lift is running.

But those aren't the skiers who pay the resort's bills. And the majority of day ticket buyers are clearly voicing their disapproval by staying home.

This rock-permeated snowpack isn't a new problem for the Snowbowl. The same conditions existed when natural snowpack was thin, leading me to ponder long ago whether it would make sense to identify the worst offending rock-garden areas and just cover them somehow—either with dirt and grass, in summer, or even AstroTurf. But I've never seen anything like that.

Yes, it's theoretically possible Snowbowl could just keep the resort closed, and keep making snow until the base is deep enough to keep all the rocks buried, but in practice that would be extremely expensive, and the temptation to open prematurely on what would appear to be an abundant base would probably be impossible to resist.

How about augmenting or even replacing snow with something truly man-made, like itty-bitty plastic flakes or pellets? Surely we could fabricate something that would serve as a reasonable facsimile for snow. Maybe it would ski just like bottomless powder, even in the middle of summer. Maybe that would draw people to the hills when winter has gone AWOL.

Or maybe not. Perhaps you're aware of what I call the Mountain High effect: skiing can be great in the local mountains, but if the weather is sunny and warm in the city, people stay home. Send in one meager storm, and suddenly an avalanche of people rush to the resorts, clogging the roads and the slopes in one sudden, immense, madhouse gauntlet run.

Storms are their own marketing team, infusing everyone's brains everywhere with one clear message: there's snow in them thar hills. Keep the weather sunny, dry, and warm, like it is now, and everyone instead finds other things to do, be it hiking, biking, or just heading to the beach.

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About SierraDescents

When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

Pray for snow.