Several resorts in the state this year added new furniture, i.e. ski lifts, to impress their guests ahead of the new season. But Vail Resorts is funneling a large share of its investments in the state this year and next on improving the flooring.
“We focused on our lift infrastructure and now we are in a much better place,” said Greg Johnson, vice president of mountain operations at Vail Mountain. “We need to shift focus and spend some time on snowmaking.”
Vail Mountain put in 10 large fan guns on the Born Free Trail for the upcoming season and is boosting its grooming capacity on the Back Bowls, which should result in a 30 percent increase in tamed terrain.
Breckenridge Ski Resort has replaced 50 of its older model guns on Peak 9 with newer versions that can make snow more quickly and with less energy. And Keystone Resort installed a new water pipe up to its Paymaster Trail and upgraded equipment to provide better snow coverage on that intermediate run.
Thanks to colder temperatures and a lot of natural accumulation this month, those two resorts are set to open on Nov. 7 instead of Nov. 9. Vail Mountain is set to open Nov. 16.
In the summer of 2017, Vail Resorts announced a commitment to using 100 percent renewable energy sources and to zero net emissions and zero landfill waste by 2030. Switching out older snowmaking equipment is part of that program.
Johnson said snowmaking equipment has made great strides the last five to 10 years, especially when it comes to energy efficiency and automation.
“All of the manufacturers are doing a better job of figuring out how to make volumes of snow more efficiently using less compressed air,” he said.
Compressed air is the energy hog in the process. Warmer temperatures require more air in the mix to prevent the guns from spitting out icy rain. But that means the compressed air runs out faster, shutting down the process.
For the same amount of energy that an older compressed air snowmaker uses, a ski resort can run 20 to 40 of the newer fan guns, Johnson said. Because they use much less compressed air, the fan guns can run for longer periods, which allows for better use of the available water.
The new models also come with controls that adjust automatically based on information from a nearby weather station, making them less labor intensive.
Next season, Vail Mountain plans a really big shift in its snowmaking strategy, assuming approval of a plan it submitted to the U.S. Forest Service in September.
Vail would like to put more equipment higher up on the mountain where the snow produced has a better chance of surviving warm spells. The resort specifically wants to lay snow on Swingsville, a beginner’s trail, and on Ramshorn, an intermediate trail. And if the base is a mushy mess, Gondola One will ferry customers to the bottom.
“There are always colder temperatures at mid-Vail. We will be able to get more terrain open quicker,” Johnson said.
Vail Mountain wants to provide a consistent opening date around the Thanksgiving holiday, a popular time for families booking vacations. The past couple of years, warm November temperatures have forced opening delays and required early skiers and boarders to endure less than ideal conditions.
By producing more snow mid-mountain, the resort can open terrain suited to the typical Thanksgiving skier and create a date-certain opening, Johnson said.
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