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