Jan 15

Snow Makers at Big Bear Lake’s Snow Summit and Bear Mountain

Snow Making in Big Bear Lake

Snow Making Blower in Big Bear Lake

Ever wonder how snow resorts make and distribute snow during dry spells? I have. I imagined machines, much like snow plows, scaling the slopes while evenly dispersing man-made snow behind it. A sort of anti-snow plow. (Although, I must admit, I never gave much thought to where the snow might have come from originally to get into my imaginary snow machine.) But, since I had given some thought about man-made snow, you can imagine that I jumped on the chance to get a behind-the-scenes peek at snow making at the Snow Summit Ski Resort.

We arrived at Snow Summit early in the morning; the air temperature had not yet risen above freezing. We met our guide, Chris Riddle (director of marketing at Snow Summit Mountain Resort), at the heart of the resort with skiers and snowboarders hustling here and there. By this time, the resort’s parking lot was already quickly filling up with excited adventurers. After a quick little briefing we started climbing the stairs. I started to worry, because we kept climbing and climbing. Then the horror flashed across my eyes…I was going to have to climb to the top of the slope to see the machinery!

Thank goodness, not. Much to my relief, he stopped at the base of the slope—the end of the stairs. Whew, no total embarrassment today. As we stood outside in the frigid cold, Chris casually explained how the resort pulls water from Big Bear Lake to make their snow for both resorts: Snow Summit and Bear Mountain. The Big Bear Municipal Water District ( MWD) gets paid to borrow the water, of which 50 to 60 percent melts and runs back into the lake! Sounds like a sweet deal to me. And, somehow I don’t think the MWD pays Snow Summit for the natural snow runoff they receive, but that’s getting too deep in thought.

Snow Summit Snow Making Facility

Big Bear Lake’s Snow Summit snow-making facility.

I think Chris realized we out-of-towners were not adjusting well to the cold and welcomed us quickly inside the beast of the summit: the control center. He explained how every day, the crew gets together and evaluates what they will need to make that evening to keep the slopes fresh for the skiers and snowboarders. He shows us a detailed map of temperature readings all over the mountain. The slopes have sensors that enable them to know what the current conditions are for making snow.

We step down into a large room that houses all the air compressors used to pump the water through the pipes, up to the “guns” positioned on the slope to shoot out the water and make snow. They currently use two types of guns, positioned alongside the slopes, up and down the mountain. The older system uses giant air compressors to pump the water through a pipe system, up to spray guns positioned on the slope.

Snow Summit Snow Guns

Snow guns at Snow Summit in Big Bear

The newer technology uses larger guns where water is shot across jet engine fans. The newer technology is more efficient, but each gun costs about $35,000 each. The older guns process about 70 gallons per minute, whereas the new guns can shoot out 200 gallons per minute. Not too long ago, the resort invested about $6 million in new diesel generators. As a result, they reduced their emissions by an estimated 80 percent. The resort generates all of its own electricity.

Ok, so we solved the mystery. It isn’t an anti-snow plow. It’s snow guns! But, as it turns out, it isn’t just snow guns; it is very much the people behind the machine. It turns out that making snow is more of an art than a science. Every afternoon the crew has their pow-wow.  Some stay behind in the control center, while some hop on their snow machines and head up to the guns. As the crew at base camp shoot snow from the guns, the crew on the slope outstretch their arms to see how the snow lands. What they are looking for is to see the snow bounce off their coats. That is perfect. The ideal conditions for making snow are temperatures in the teens and low humidity. High humidity freezes the snow on the ground.

Output is determined by the amount of water being pumped, the air temperature, and winds. The crew on the mountain give hand signals to the crew at the base to adjust the water pressure to create the perfect mixture. They create a new plan every night, just so we can have our fun on the slopes—never giving a thought to the man behind the machines. Or, perhaps, never even noticing the machines as we glide past.

As we wrap up our tour, a couple of young boys on their snow boards skillfully slide past us with ease, making the whole idea of snowboarding look so simple. You can’t help but sense their fun and excitement. For us, it was time to go. Mother nature decided it was time to provide a reminder that Snow Summit wasn’t the only game in town for making snow.

My husband and I were determined to take a quick spin in town before the snow hit, so we headed out. As we completed our unbelievably brief tour of the village, the snow began to fall. We stretched out our arms and watched it bounce off our sleeves. Yep, perfect…but, what else would you expect from Mother Nature? Show off.

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