• Image about Errol Kerr
Kerr’s snowmaking machine
BUT WHILE THE SNOW may be an expected luxury to skiers, it’s a matter of survival for the resorts. During a busy Thanksgiving holiday, Mammoth Mountain attracts more than 30,000 skiers and snowboarders to the slopes over the four-day weekend. At more than $80 a lift ticket, a closed mountain would mean missing out on about $2.5 million in ticket sales, not to mention the lost lodging, dining and shopping revenues. So the high pressure is not only in the air hoses, it’s on the snowmakers to deliver. And they have — Mammoth hasn’t missed a Thanksgiving opening in more than 20 years, including “at least a half dozen we could not have opened without snowmaking,” says Brian Bethke, Mammoth’s snow-placement manager.

Snowmaking played a gold-medal role in the 2010 winter Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia. A warm January left many of the competition runs rocky and dry. As organizers nervously watched temperatures drop slowly, the snowmaking system blasted out acres of snow, freezing 100 million gallons of water in just two weeks. More than just a scenic backdrop, the snow was the foundation on which downhill racers were literally risking their lives at over 80 miles per hour. Prior to the Olympic kickoff, U.S. team skier Lindsey Vonn did her early season training at Vail, Colo., where a newly installed snowmaking system on Golden Peak helped her to become a golden girl at the games.

  • Image about Errol Kerr
Kerr at his homemade ski-cross starting ramp
Snowmaking isn’t just a feature for Olympians. Often, it’s the beginners who benefit the most. As the bottom portions of mountains typically get less snow coverage, snowmaking serves the needs of those looking to enjoy the easier, flatter trails. One day several years ago, when sparse coverage on Northstar’s lower slopes would have stranded hundreds of beginner skiers, forcing them to ride down the rest of Village Run on ski lifts, the operations folks kicked the snowmaking into high gear to cover the lower slopes of the run just in time for the end-of-day rush.

And while the technology of snowmaking is improving, with carefully coded computer settings to ensure proper production, coverage and air/water mix, it is still often the humble on-mountain workers who make sure the job gets done. Mammoth’s Berke says that despite the technology, “things freeze, break, and everything is getting buried. Snowmakers are big on shoveling.” As his workers prepared the snowboarding terrain park for the 2010 Olympic qualifiers, a water hydrant broke, spewing fountains of cold water over workers in 10-degree temperatures. Snowmakers fought to cap the broken main while trying to preserve the environment around them. With clothes frozen solid on their bodies, the workers were able to maintain operations, successfully put a valve on the hydrant and still get the half-pipe ready for the upcoming competition.

Back in his home, Kerr awakens to prepare for his impending Olympic competition at the 2014 Games. He drives his mini-tractor out of his garage and plows the newly created pile of snow into an abbreviated ski-cross course. After one day, there is enough snow for the start and a jump. Tomorrow will bring a banked turn. And with his combination of dedicated practice and a good understanding of the wet-bulb index, Kerr may be able to leverage his homemade snowmaking abilities to land Jamaica another top-10 finish at the 2014 Olympics.

BILL FINK is a California-based freelance writer who covers skiing, travel and business. He lives part time in the Lake Tahoe area, where he spends his winters skiing and snowboarding on real and artificial snow.