In the age of climate change, Mount Van Hoevenberg and other cross-country centers turn to snowmaking to lengthen the ski season
By Mike Lynch
The winter of 2015-2016 was a difficult one for the Mount Van Hoevenberg cross-country-ski center. Warm weather and rains forced the venue to close in February, ending a season that lasted a mere thirty-seven days.
Mount Van Hoevenberg manager Kris Cheney-Seymour said the short ski season goaded the center to find a way to stay open longer in warm winters. By the following winter, Van Ho had installed a snowmaking system known as the Snow Factory. The result: it stayed open 137 days last season.
“Last winter, which was not a banner year in natural snow or even temperatures, the Snow Factory was crucial to us having a successful season,” Cheney-Seymour said. “We were open just under forty days more than we would have otherwise been open.”
Nordic ski centers throughout the country and the world face an existential threat from climate change. Like Van Ho, many are turning to snowmaking to survive. But Van Ho, which is located outside of Lake Placid, is though to be the only cross-country center in the United States with a Snow Factory.
Made by TechnoAlpin, an Italian company, the Snow Factory differs from traditional snowmaking systems found at downhill resorts. It creates ice chips in an enclosed trailer. The ice is then broken up and shot through a plastic pipe to a pile on a nearby trail. The pile is then broken up and spread to nearby trails.
Cheney-Seymour said the snow is more durable than either natural snow or the snow made at alpine resorts. The snow is used to create a solid base (ideally, two feet or more) in front of the lodge, supplement popular trails, and keep a short loop trail open during warm spells. Yet Cheney-Seymour describes the Snow Factory as only a partial solution. In the long term, he said, cross-country centers need to move toward a hybrid system of snowmaking.
A hybrid system would include traditional snowmaking, the Snow Factory, and a snow-storage facility to hold snow through the off-season. Van Ho hopes to have such a system in place by next winter.
Cheney-Seymour said Van Hoevenberg is looking into constructing a facility that would store enough snow to cover two to three kilometers of trail. It could be an open-air structure with just a roof. In that case, the snow could be covered throughout the summer with sawdust or insulated blankets to prevent melting.
Van Ho plans to install both mobile and stationary snowmaking guns. When the temperature is below freezing, the guns can create more snow—and faster—than the Snow Factory. The benefit of the Snow Factory is that it can make snow even if the temperature is far above freezing.
This hybrid system would allow Van Hoevenberg to open more often for the general public as well as for athletes in training. Van Ho also could host World Championship and World Cup biathlon, Nordic combined, and cross-country-skiing events. Right now, the venue is not eligible for those competitions because it can’t guarantee good snow conditions.
Cheney-Seymour said the hybrid system will enable Van Ho to compete with elite venues in Canada, Finland, and Switzerland. One such venue is in Canmore, Alberta, home of the 1998 Winter Olympics. It boasts the Frozen Thunder, a roughly two-
kilometer trail that opens in October each year. The Frozen Thunder is made with stored man-made snow from the previous winter. It is often reserved as a training area for Canada’s best Nordic athletes.
Van Hoevenberg also made snow this fall when the temperature was well above freezing. It hosted the U.S. paralympic Nordic program in late October. It also made snow for an Olympic-themed party at Rockefeller Center in New York City in early November, a hundred days before the Winter Olympics in South Korea. “We’ve successfully made snow at eighty-two degrees that we were then able to push out and groom,” Cheney-Seymour said.
In recent years, more and more Nordic ski centers have been investing in snowmaking. Cheney-Seymour said Van Hoevenberg is one of three Nordic centers in the state with snowmaking. The others are at Gore Mountain in the central Adirondacks and Bristol Mountain in the Finger Lakes.
Several Nordic centers in Vermont also use snowmaking, including Rikert Nordic Center in Ripton. Prior to installing snowmaking in February 2013, the Middlebury College-owned facility used to average about seventy skier-days per winter, but it now averages about twice that number, said Carrie Herzog, an employee at the center.
“Our skier visits are increasing from year to year as people are learning that there’s consistent skiing. … People are learning when it rains, it doesn’t mean there’s no more skiing the next day. That we still have still skiing,” Herzog said.
But snowmaking isn’t a cure-all for rain. Mount Van Hoevenberg did have to shut down for a couple of days in late January due to heavy rains and temperatures in the fifties. However, it reopened without the aid of natural snow a few days later.
“Our goal for this winter was to have groomed skiing for 150 days, and the Snow Factory is the only way it is possible to do that given the reality of winter and winter weather,” Cheney-Seymour said. “We certainly all know that there can be plenty of cold weather that doesn’t carry snow with it. There can be warm weather that is downright tropical. For us, the Snow Factory allows us to make the decision when our winter will start and carry it until we’d like to finish. It makes the business plan predictable at Mount Van Hoevenberg.”