STOWE

AT ONE OF AMER­ICA’S OLD­EST RE­SORTS, MA­CHINE-MADE FLAKES KEEP SKIERS HAPPY ON THE HILLS.

Air Canada enRoute - - THE SCIENCE OF SNOW /LA SCIENCE DE LA NEIGE - BY / PAR SU­SAN NERBERG

FROM MY VAN­TAGE POINT AT THE BASE OF STOWE Moun­tain Re­sort, the snow seems to draw bright rib­bons over the peaks, light­en­ing the dark­ness of a Ver­mont win­ter. But then I step in­side Stowe’s snow-mak­ing plant, where the close-up I get of the white stuff is dif­fer­ent from what I ex­pected. Here, it’s ren­dered as pix­els in green, blue and red, mak­ing vis­i­ble on a gran­u­lar level the no­tion that no two snowflakes – nat­u­ral or man-made – are ever alike. As I study the snow un­der mag­ni­fi­ca­tion, I’m re­minded that there was no nat­u­ral snow­fall the week be­fore my ar­rival – so some­thing had to be done.

“The truth is that ski re­sorts in the East have to make snow,” snow-mak­ing plant su­per­vi­sor Christo­pher LeBlanc tells me.

“We get more snow than else­where in the re­gion, but it’s not enough to keep the hill run­ning for as long as you need to break even.” I look around the room. The heart of Stowe’s snow­pump­ing ac­tion re­minds me of a scene out of the 1980s movie WarGames: In front of me, five large screens flicker with bars, graphs and cir­cuits that dis­play air pres­sure, hu­mid­ity and tem­per­a­ture. They pin­point the lo­ca­tion of – and wa­ter pres­sure within – pump sta­tions and booster pumps on the moun­tain, and blink and beep an alarm when it gets too warm to make snow. Out­side the win­dows, skiers and snow­board­ers hap­pily charge to the re­sort base at Mount Mans­field, Ver­mont’s tallest peak, obliv­i­ous to the high-stakes de­ci­sions made in­side.

And what’s at stake here in Ver­mont is ski­ing – not to men­tion the US$595 mil­lion the sport adds to the econ­omy each year. But due to cli­mate change, New Eng­land win­ters are be­com­ing shorter and less snowy, and there are more ex­treme weather events like the mid-win­ter rain that fell ahead of my ar­rival. Snow-mak­ing is nec­es­sary to keep re­sorts like Stowe run­ning.

Seated be­fore the screens is Bryce Berggren, the re­sort’s con­trol room op­er­a­tor. “At 4 p.m., the ac­tion starts,” he says. The overnight tem­per­a­ture has to be be­low 0°C to suc­cess­fully cre­ate snow. Four pump­houses draw wa­ter from a reser­voir and fun­nel it to 1,200 can­nons spread across the moun­tain. Fans and

THE TEX­TURE OF THE ARTIFICAL SNOW IS LIKE IC­ING SUGAR.

com­pres­sors mix up to 26 cu­bic me­tres of wa­ter per minute with just the right amount of air to at­om­ize the wa­ter droplets, mak­ing them smaller and more snowflake-like in the cold. Berggren scans the dis­plays, and when the mes­sage “Weather con­di­tions met. Ready to start.” pops up, he flicks a switch. The sky is blocked by a cloud that falls like dust; the tex­ture of the ar­ti­fi­cial snow is like ic­ing sugar.

Snow-mak­ing and fore­cast­ing are modern ad­di­tions to one of the old­est ski re­sorts in the United States. The self-pro­claimed Ski Cap­i­tal of the East, Stowe was home to the first ski pa­trol in the coun­try. A rope tow was in­stalled in the 1930s; a lift fol­lowed in the ’40s; and the Mat­ter­horn après-ski joint, where old-timers use their own beer steins, claims to have been “in­fa­mous since 1950.” The re­sort’s main area, at Spruce Peak Vil­lage, looks a bit more like Switzer­land than New Eng­land. Head into Stowe Vil­lage, a 10-minute drive away, though, and it’s all clap­board houses in white, red and grey, hud­dled around Stowe Com­mu­nity Church, built in the mid-19th cen­tury in the New Eng­land colo­nial style and one of the most pho­tographed churches in the coun­try.

To fig­ure out where old meets new, and na­ture meets ar­ti­fice, I head up the hill with Scott Braaten, Stowe’s snow fore­caster. We hop on the FourRun­ner Quad, then hike the last bit to the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice sta­tion atop Mount Mans­field. “Peo­ple from Toronto and D.C., who have planned their trips, will come re­gard­less of my snow re­port, but those who live nearby might can­cel if they think they won’t have fun,” he says, show­ing me the weather ser­vice’s snow stake. A grad­u­ated metal pole that sticks up from a board, it is used to mea­sure snow­fall.

Farther down, the re­sort has its own stakes, one at the base, the other at an el­e­va­tion of 900 me­tres, or two-thirds up the

moun­tain. Each morn­ing at 5:15, Braaten checks the base stake, not­ing the amount and type of snow. “We get what’s called an oro­graphic lift,” says Braaten. That is when the ter­rain forces air to rise then cool, which can cre­ate pre­cip­i­ta­tion like snow. “This ridge is lo­cated right where the nor’east­ers col­lide with the Al­berta clip­pers.” (A trans­la­tion for non-me­te­o­rol­o­gists: That is where storms orig­i­nat­ing along the north­east At­lantic coast meet fast-mov­ing weather sys­tems that de­vel­oped on the lee side of the Cana­dian Rock­ies.)

When that hap­pens, you’re in luck – if you like to ski deep, fluffy snow. The re­gion av­er­ages about 7.5 me­tres per year, more than New York’s Adiron­dacks and New Hamp­shire’s White Moun­tains. Still, 90 per­cent of the ski­able ter­rain is treated to man-made snow. Be­fore we say good­bye, Braaten re­veals that the Hayride run still has soft snow, made the night be­fore. Carv­ing my way down, I no­tice that the snow can­nons lean in over the run, al­most like they’ve had one Ver­mont craft IPA too many at the après-ski.

The next morn­ing, I call the 1-800 snow phone. Braaten’s voice tells me there is “loose and frozen gran­u­lar” from the groomers till­ing into the snowy sur­face. I take the gon­dola up Mount Mans­field and start mak­ing my way down the Perry Merrill run, named af­ter the state forester who cleared by hand this and other trails some 80 years ago. In Merrill’s time, there were no crews that ex­ca­vated dips or built up banks; the trees were cut along nat­u­ral fall lines.

Alone on the tree-lined boule­vard, I ski with the con­fi­dence of a racer. The snow that has been blown onto the run overnight may not be Mother Na­ture’s cre­ation. But added to her own roller coast­ers, it’s the ic­ing sugar on the cake.

ABOVE, LEFT TO RIGHT Peak Ver­mont: The base of the gon­dola at Stowe Moun­tain Re­sort; Scott Braaten, snow re­porter and fore­caster for Stowe Moun­tain Re­sort, checks a re­mote weather sta­tion and weather plot. OP­PO­SITE PAGE Skiers on the lower slopes of Stowe Moun­tain Re­sort pass through a snow shower, cour­tesy of the snow can­nons. CI-DESSUS, DE GAUCHE À DROITE Et monte le Ver­mont : les télé­cab­ines de la Stowe Moun­tain Re­sort ; Scott Braaten, nivo­logue et météoro­logue pour la Snow Moun­tain Re­sort, con­sulte sta­tion météo et balise à neige. PAGE DE GAUCHE À la Stowe Moun­tain Re­sort, des skieurs ont droit à une petite tem­pête, gra­cieuseté des canons à neige.

LEFT On the job: Max Con­stant, snow-mak­ing su­per­vi­sor at Stowe Moun­tain Re­sort. CI-CONTRE Max Con­stant, su­per­viseur de la fab­ri­ca­tion de neige à la Stowe Moun­tain Re­sort, a reçu la pelle de la na­ture.

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