KEYSTONE Near 11,600 feet on Dercum Mountain, jet engines appear to be posted on tall towers. Their model names could indeed be those of fighter planes: TF10, TR8.

But no, it won’t be fire and fuel blasting from these. It’ll be the powder skiers crave, converted from water and compressed air. No pilot required.

It’s all part of a new drone-snow-making arms race.

It’s always been that the cold, dry conditions strike in the middle of a fall night, and snowmakers assemble. They’ve driven a truck up the mountain’s dirt road. They’ve connected the hoses. They’ve turned on the hydrants. They’ve hiked down this run called Schoolmarm, Keystone Resort’s longest at 3½ miles, tending to the snowguns one by one.

“Now we have this automated system, where it’s like, OK, 27 degrees, click of a button, and it’s boom, boom, boom, boom,” says Chris Ingham,director of mountain operations.

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The temperature will flash on the computer screen down at the command center. “HOME OF THE RHINOS,” reads the banner on the wall, announcing the thick-skinned snowmakers. Now they can stay put, watching the screen.

The automated arsenal is 53 strong, those mighty TF10s and TR8s standing at the ready to cover Schoolmarm white at an unprecedented rate.

They’re all the talk in Summit County with the 2019-20 season approaching. One rhino is overheard at a bar: “I think they’ll give A-Basin a run for their money.”

The race is on, whether officials from Arapahoe Basin or Keystone are saying it or not.

Might Vail Resorts’ big investment in the automation — a “significant” chunk of a $180 million capital campaign, we’re told — be a response to A-Basin leaving the Epic Pass? Is this revenge?

“Well,” says Alan Henceroth, the basin’s chief operating officer, “I don’t think that’s a bad question.”

Says Loryn Roberson, Keystone’s spokeswoman: “I think we’re just happy to be part of the conversation.”

Part of the conversation to open first, joining the likes of A-Basin, Loveland and Wolf Creek. Those contenders’ reputation is built on snow-conducive elevation, their three bases situated above 10,300 feet. Keystone’s is 1,000 feet lower.

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But for a while, Coloradans came to know the mountain as their first stop for winter. The resort was one of the earliest to adopt snowmaking in 1972, and through the ‘80s and ‘90s, it vied with Loveland for opening-day bragging rights. Then A-Basin grew its capabilities in 2002, effectively elbowing Keystone out of the race.

Now high on Dercum Mountain, ski country has been put on notice. Keystone aims to open several weeks ahead of its typical November target date, eyeing October for the first time in almost 20 years.

The automated guns pose “an unbelievable advantage,” Ingham says. The technology isn’t unique to the industry; Ingham comes to guide Keystone’s transition after overseeing an impressive fleet at Park City, Utah, which uses the same manufacturer. Italy-based TechnoAlpin has led the global, automated charge since 1990.

While not unique to this state, the guns are fairly uncommon due to complex water rights. And it’s especially rare to find them in such a formation. Bunched feet apart beside Schoolmarm’s full length, it’s clear Keystone means business.

Clear, too, is Vail Resorts’ greater mission to improve snowmaking across its state operations. Upgrades at Breckenridge propelled the resort to a deep, June 9 finish last season. “The Keystone Kickoff” and Breck’s “Spring Finale” are Vail’s promise to maintain a long season for Epic Pass holders without A-Basin.

“I think they were gonna do that anyway, no matter what,” says Henceroth, whose area announced the Epic departure in February. “And I don’t blame them at all. To be open as early as possible, I think it’s smart.”

Yes, sportsmanship prevails in this race.

“I think it’s great,” Loveland spokesman John Sellers says of the new but familiar opponent. “The more resorts participating, the more buzz there will be, and overall, I think it’s a good thing for the industry.”

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