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Snowmaking is a 'nasty job' that workers at Colorado ski areas cherish

November 5, 2015 Updated: November 5, 2015 at 3:01 pm
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Lindsay Smith walks to the next snow-making fan on the moutain while making the hourly check of the 15 fans and four stick guns Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015, at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

On a clear night high on Loveland Pass, Bobby Babeon sees stars and traffic jams - and he's perfectly happy caught somewhere in between.

"It's not so bad when you don't have to go anywhere," he said.

As chief snowmaker at Loveland Ski Area, Babeon and his team aren't going anywhere until enough snow has been piled up to achieve the mountain's required 18-inch base. They hit their mark this year on Oct. 29, tying Arapahoe Basin Ski Area as the first resorts to begin running lifts during what has been a warm, dry fall.

But opening day isn't the end of their labors. The truth is, the snowmakers' jobs won't be complete until much later in the season.

As Colorado's multibillion-dollar snow sports season slides into gear, many of the state's 25 ski resorts rely on snow machines and their operators to keep the slopes running smooth, the customers happy and the cash flowing in.

At A-Basin, the yearly dance requires a staff of 10. Working in two-person teams, they make snow during 12-hour shifts, generally stopping only once skiers and snowboarders have arrived.

"If it's really good and we're making a lot of snow, they will work in two 12-hour shifts and run everything around the clock, basically," said Bill Miller, A-Basin's director of snow surfaces.

Miller said making good snow requires the three C's - cold, clear and calm.

"Cold, because the colder it is . the better snow we can make. Clear, because it's usually dry when it's clear, and high humidity makes it more difficult to make snow. And calm, because the snow lands where you're pointing the gun instead of where the wind wants it to go," he said.

The crews blow the snow into piles, and huge, wheeled vehicles called snowcats are brought in to push it where it's needed.

Under ideal conditions, "we can pump 1,000 gallons per minute," Miller said.

In the course of a day, snowmakers at A-Basin transform up to 1 million gallons of water into snow, said snowmaker Donny Nazario, who joined a teammate for a frigid night on the pass getting ready for opening day.

Together, the duo ran from one snow machine to the next, clearing them of icicles and making adjustments to ensure snow was blown where needed.

"It's just putting extra extreme on the extreme sports, especially at night," he said.

Snow guns, which cost up to $25,000, are fed by a network of hoses connected to hydrants. At A-Basin, acquiring the necessary equipment took "several million dollars in capital investments," Miller said.

While nights grow frosty on the mountain, constant activity means that snowmakers generally stay warm in light layers.

"Most people think that it's a really intense - hard work, cold weather - nasty job, which it is," Babeon said. "But I think the people that make snow enjoy that kind of thing. They look on it as a challenge. They're up on the hill and nobody else is."

Generally, everybody else is trying to get home - their brake lights illuminating Interstate 70 far below while Babeon is hard at work on the slopes.

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