Let it Snow

Ski resorts have snowmaking down to a science – now sometimes the real stuff gets in the way

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Snowmaking is an art and a science, and without it skiing as we know it would be dead. "That is unquestionable," says Preston Smith, the founder of Vermont's Killington ski resort and a pioneer in the world of snowmaking. "You can't spend $15 million on a new high-speed gondola and then just hope for snow." From North Carolina to northern Vermont, from the Colorado Rockies to California's High Sierra, from Japan to Argentina and even that paragon of Alpine wonder, Switzerland, ski resorts are relying more and more on making and grooming snow – farming it, in effect – to attract skiers. "Technology has guaranteed an expectation of good skiing and good snow," says one snowmaking engineer. "And if a ski area doesn't have it, skiers will go to one that does."

Snow farming involves the use of snow guns; snow groomers; networks of pipes, pumps and compressors; millions of gallons of water and kilowatt-hours of electricity; meteorological know-how; and timing, judgment and strategy. It has changed everything about the ski industry, from the design and layout of trails, to the placement of lifts, to the timing and length of the season itself. It has riled environmentalists and birthed an infant high-tech industry of companies. Weirdest of all, it has reduced Mother Nature's contribution to a near nuisance. "I used to pray for snow," says Burt Mills, until recently the head of mountain operations for the American Skiing Company, which owns a total of nine ski areas in the East and West. "But now if it comes on a weekend, it's a curse. People can't get to the resorts."

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