If it snows, they will come. This is the mantra of Whistler and many other ski towns in the early stages of every winter. Snow is our lifeblood, those tiny flakes of crystalline water-ice fuel our economy while providing us with a surface to enjoy turning our boards on. It's the reason why many of us visit Whistler and why some of us never leave.
But Mother Nature can be fickle sometimes, and in her wisdom she will occasionally remind us that we are never in control of the weather. Whistler rarely sees a "dry" season (the last three winters in a row have all been record breaking) due to our position in the Pacific Ranges, which lend themselves to frequent storms rolling in off the Gulf of Alaska. But for a ski resort the scale of Whistler Blackcomb (WB), snow must be on the ground for opening day be it natural or manufactured.
Pique headed out on the slopes with Dave Fortier, WB's snowmaking assistant manager and seven-year veteran in the department, recently to find out more about how the snow is made. As the work truck rumbles up the summer access road on Whistler Mountain, Fortier explains that the method of making artificial snow basically replicates some of what happens naturally in the clouds (see feature page 64 for the science behind snow). Water, pumped or otherwise gravity fed from massive reservoirs in the alpine, is dispersed at high pressure through an array of very fine nozzles on the snow gun. A fan or high pressure air source shoots these particles high into the air, allowing enough time for the particles to nucleate and crystallize into snowflakes before falling to the ground as white powder.
"You can start making snow at -2 (degrees Celsius), there's no limit, the colder it gets the more you can maximize the CFM (cubic feet of snow per minute)," says Fortier.
"But when you pass -15C you start having to troubleshoot problems."
Those problems arise mostly out of ice build up in areas of flowing water or air. The wind, as well as the cold, can make life more difficult for the 45 staff in the snowmaking department. With a slight change in wind speed or direction, the valuable plume of white powder can blow into the trees making it difficult to recover.
Fortier pulls the truck over next at the base of the Big Red Express, the whir and hiss of around a half dozen snow guns is clear evidence that operations are in full swing to get this mountain open on time. The temperature on this trip is around -8C with clear skies, the perfect conditions for maximum snow output. I'm now in the less comfortable pillion seat on the back of a snowmobile as Fortier pilots the vehicle through the powder clouds of another dozen snow guns. Production is at maximum on Pony Trail, a green run that saw lots of skier traffic on opening day.