How NH’s Ski Mountains are Working With Mother Nature
New England winters have long been synonymous with snow sports and unpredictable weather. Spend any time here, skiing or snowboarding, and you’ll learn that lesson quickly. However, the very same Yankee ingenuity that helped the ski industry gain a foothold and then flourish in the Granite State is being called upon to help save the sport in the face of climate change.
There’s a great deal on the line for New Hampshire skiers and snowboarders who are already being asked to pay a premium while pursuing their passion. Snow — good snow — is a necessity, and the scientific community is predicting a grim forecast.
Climate researchers are not sugarcoating their findings
Winter season lengths are projected to decline at ski areas across the country, in some locations by more than 50% by 2050 and by 80% by 2090, if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, according to a 2017 case study published in Global Environmental Change. Furthermore, a tourism management study, done in 2012, suggested only about half of the roughly 100 ski resorts presently operating in the Northeast will be economically viable by mid-century.
Those are sobering numbers. But New Hampshire ski area officials say that it’s a familiar refrain in New England, where the vagaries of the weather borders on legendary. None sounded worried that they would soon be listed on the New England Lost Ski Areas Project (nelsap.org).
“Our weather in New England is consistently inconsistent,” said Ken Mack, Loon Mountain’s snow surfaces manager. “We’ve been dealing with warm-ups and rain events since 1966, but didn’t have the firepower to quickly bring the trails back to packed powder conditions back then.”
Likewise, the Mount Sunapee tandem of director of mountain operations Chris Corliss and snowmaking manager Kris Dubaere have a combined experience of more than 6 decades. There’s little they haven’t seen.
“Weather variability has always been a factor in the ski industry,” said Corliss. “Mount Sunapee still pumps around the same amount of water for snowmaking operations as we did 20 years ago, to cover the same terrain and features.
“So the average temperatures and windows in which we can make snow have not changed drastically,” he said. “What we have noticed is a higher variability of conditions during our winter seasons, including rain and icing events.”
John Lowell, president and general manager of Attitash and Wildcat, told the Conway Daily Sun last spring that a resort’s ability to adjust to rapid-changing weather patterns will play an ever-increasing role in its success.
“Weather patterns seem to be trending more to the extremes, and we must be prepared to make as much snow as possible when the windows of opportunity present themselves,” said Lowell. “This, coupled with the increasing cost of electricity and electrical supply issues, magnify the need to be efficient and productive.”
Andrew Mahoney, general manager at King Pine Ski Area in East Madison, has been involved in mountain operations, dealing with New England winters, since 1993.
“During my career, I have wit-nessed increasingly challenging weather events, with more frequent storms that end in sleet and rain, more frequent melt/freeze cycles, and more low-snow years,” said Mahoney. “With that being said, we’re coming off one of our most successful seasons with great conditions right until the end
Mahoney’s statement perfectly captures the wild swings that New England ski area managers have had to deal with for decades. It can be feast or famine. However, acknowledging the realities of changing weather, and believing those changes can be addressed through better technology and better business practices, are not necessarily mutually exclusive concepts.
“I’ve seen all the doom and gloom facing ski areas in New England and in other parts of the country,” said Kris Blomback, general manager at Pats Peak Ski Area in Henniker for more than a quarter century. “Personally, I don’t buy it. Operating any business, whether its ski areas or widget companies, encounter forces beyond their control. Weather happens to be one of the inputs that we cannot control. But what we can do about it, we certainly do.
“I am generally bullish on the snow sports, but I don’t look through rose-colored glasses either,” he said. “Our management team is vigilant on emerging trends, cost control
and generally operating our business where — pardon the pun — we don’t get too far out over our skis. Poor management has sunk many an area at a faster clip than any sort of vagaries of weather.”
Snowmaking’s early days
Blomback’s matter-of-fact approach to climate change is echoed by Jessyca Keeler, executive director of SkiNH, the association that represents the state’s ski areas. In fact, she said, it’s simply the latest challenge in almost 80 years of challenges.
“While it’s true that climate change is a top concern amongst many in the ski industry, ski areas in New Hampshire have had a long time to learn to adapt to changing weather patterns,” said Keeler. “As early as the late 1930s, when the industry began in this state, operators looked for ways to make snow during seasons when Mother Nature wasn’t cooperative.”
“Thus began the sister industry of snowmaking, which has become a key element for New England ski areas’ ability to ensure a 4- to 5-month ski season for its cus-tomers,” said Keeler. “Over the decades, the efficiency of snow-making systems has increased dramatically, effectively allowing ski areas to make twice the amount of snow in half the amount of time that they did just a decade or two ago.”
Blomback agrees with Keeler.
“(Snowmaking) systems in general are getting bigger and faster,” he said. “In the ‘60s, it was a novelty to have snowmaking. In the ‘70s, if you didn’t have it, you went ‘bye bye.’
“In the ‘80s it was all about getting your coverage to 70% to 90%,” said Blomback. “In the late ‘90s up and through today, you’re seeing every ski area trying to make the investments to get their terrain open as fast as possible.”
Bringing out the BIG guns
Technological advances have been implemented at ski areas throughout the state, large and small. At a family-owned resort like King Pine in East Madison, Mahoney said, “Over the past decade we’ve spent the vast majority of our capital budget on improving snowmaking and grooming with the latest technology.”
“The first phase was to replace our diesel-powered water pumping and air compressor equipment with more environmentally friendly electric-powered machinery,” he said. “The next phase was to invest in new high-efficiency snowmaking equipment. We added 46 new HKD tower guns, two TechnoAlpin tower guns and rebuilt two other fan guns with the latest high-efficiency nozzles.
“We have definitely realized cost savings with these improvements,” said Mahoney. “We’re now able to put a lot more snow on the mountain in more marginal temperatures, but we can do it in a shorter period of time.”
At Cranmore in North Conway, MountainOperations Manager John Mersereau learned the business at the side of his father. Recent technological advances in snowmaking and grooming “have been game-changers,” he said. “They have allowed us to reduce manpower, energy use and our carbon footprint to produce a better product in a shorter time span.
“We have incorporated these technologies into both departments at our resort,” said Mersereau. “These upgrades and changes are not cheap but very beneficial to the resort’s sustainability both environmentally and financially. In snowmaking we have gone from 110 low-energy tower guns, to well over 500 low-energy tower guns.”
Of course, the manpower required to run the complex snowmaking systems is a major financial hurdle. To keep those costs in line, some areas are doubling down on technology.
“We are currently setting ourselves up for snowmaking automation,” said Loon’s Mack. “To date, we’ve installed over 160 semi-auto KLIK hydrants, and are expecting to purchase another 50 this summer.
“KLIK’s eliminate the need to roll out hoses and are self-draining when the gun is shut off, making it super safe and fast for our snowmakers,” he said. “These hydrants can also be automated by removing the single handle and installing an actuator, communication, and power back to the control room. We hope to start incorporating full snowmaking automation within the next two to five years.”
The second key factor in battling the side effects of climate change is a robust grooming operation. Groomers may be the unsung heroes of the ski world, providing optimal conditions while the rest of us sleep. Skiers and snowboarders can readily see the snow guns pumping out man-made powder. But groomers often work out of sight, at night (note those flickering lights traversing the slopes after sundown). And the snowpack they create often dictates not only how good the conditions will be, but also a base that determines how long a ski area can stay open come springtime.
“Grooming equipment has really evolved in a short amount of time,” said Mack. “Increased horsepower, better tillers, comfortable and intuitive operator stations, snow-pack monitoring and fleet management software have allowed us to provide a consistent, quality surface.
“With the older machines we would often have to make several passes over the same trail in order to get it to come out right,” he said. “With these newer Prinoth Bisons, we can get it right in one pass, saving time and fuel.”
Likewise, Mersereau said “the technology has come leaps and bounds from 15 years ago, along with the price tag.”
“While the old school ways of snow farming are tried and true, with the new technology and new equipment comes different techniques and possibilities,” he said. “It has given us the ability to take the snow surface to the next level, with a better quality product, and get it done faster and easier.”
Of course, as Mersereau sug-gested, all of this technology costs money. Lots of money. That’s a major reason why skiing is expensive. But knowing what a lift ticket costs, resort managers have recommitted to making sure they provide the best conditions possible.
“If you plan to be a successful ski resort in New England, then you have to invest and keep up with your snowmaking operations,” said Sunapee’s Corliss. “This ensures sustained business levels during low natural snow years and the ability to bounce back quickly from unwanted rain and icing events during the winter season.
“As Mount Sunapee is now a part of Vail Resorts, we will benefit from the continued investment in enhanced snowmaking,” he said. “In addition to these efforts, which help ensure consistent conditions for our guests, we are also focused on operationalizing sustainability.”
Those corporate benefits will now extend to Wildcat, Attitash and Crotched Mountain, three Peak Resorts properties in New Hampshire that were acquired by Vail Resorts this summer. According to Corliss, Vail Resorts’ bold sustainability pledge — Commitment to Zero — includes achieving zero net emissions, zero waste to landfill, and zero net operating impact to forests and habitats by 2030.
One part of the zero net emission goal includes reaching a 15% energy-efficiency savings across all of the company’s 37 resorts. To achieve this goal, Vail Resorts committed to investing $25 million in innovative, energy-saving projects in three key areas: snowmaking, buildings and lifts. This is happening through the deployment of low-energy snow guns as well as through replacement of LED lighting retrofits, said Corliss.
Similar changes are happening at other areas. Pats Peak’s Blomback said: “As a business you’re always looking at your revenue dollars in and your expense dollars out. The greater the difference you can create, the more opportunities exist to reinvest in the facility.”
For example, Blomback’s crew has been able to idle conventional air/water guns and substitute in low-energy and fan equipment. The difference in energy consumption, he said, is substantial.
“It’s not uncommon to see a 90% reduction in the amount of energy that is needed to make snow these days, versus 20 or 30 years ago,” said Blomback. “The energy savings that are created, in part, help with the reinvestment into the operation. Our overall plan is to constantly improve the product and make investments in a snowmaking plant. We have a very robust system here at Pats Peak.
“We laugh about it here in our staff meetings, but after snowmaking expansion takes a bite out of the available capital dollars — at the end of a ski season — all the other departments need to fight over the crumbs of what’s left,” he said. “But seriously, if you don’t have a good snow plant, you can have the nicest lodges and lifts in the world, but nobody will show up if you don’t have the skiing.”
That customer-driven approach is a common theme among New Hampshire ski areas and resorts. Statewide, SkiNH’s Keeler said, “in the last five years alone, over $20 million has been spent to improve snowmaking systems in order to help ski areas both save money and lower their carbon footprints.”
“Other efforts to mitigate ski area impacts on the environment include a wide range of efforts, such as the installation of LED lighting throughout ski areas, installing electric car-charging stations, using electric groomers, implementing no-idling policies, and installing more energy-efficient heating systems in lodges and associated buildings,” she said.
Even those managers who are skeptical about the severity of climate change understand the necessity to adapt.
Looking to the future…
“Do we have issues? You bet,” said Blomback. “But technology and adaption can overcome a lot of adversity. What ski areas faced in the ‘50s and ‘60s for problems are long in the rearview mirror with the advent of modern snowmaking.
“Thirty years from now, I’m pretty confident we’ll be looking back and saying the issues of today are in the rearview mirror as well,” he said, adding that how individual ski areas “deal with curveballs” that climate change throws at them will set them apart, and will determine which remain successful.
Looking ahead, Cranmore’s Mersereau echoed the sentiments of many colleagues in the ski industry: “We are very conscious of our carbon footprint and our impact on the environment, and are always looking for ways to reduce it. There is a lot of technology out there to help with this.”
New Hampshire skiers and snowboarders are counting on it.