Whiteface weather warriors use all the tools to get the job done
By Tom French
New York’s Olympic mountain, Whiteface, boasts an iconic peak reaching almost 5,000 feet into the sky, creating the highest vertical drop in the East of 3,430 feet. Still, it’s not immune to the vagaries of climate change and weather, so before skiers lay down a fresh track, someone lays “the product”—the term used by the snowmakers to describe what they provide.
It’s hard work—dragging hoses and snow guns through krummholz up to the knees in deep snow on a steep mountain. Water for thousands of guns and hydrants is pumped through over 20 miles of pipe. Over the last two summers, almost nine miles of new pipe was installed as part of a multi-year upgrade with new waterlines to the summit and most of the race trails on Little Whiteface. Pumps and compressors have been replaced or refurbished and older snow guns changed to energy-efficient models that make more snow in less time with less water and a smaller carbon footprint.
“What we had was from the (1980) Olympics,” Aaron Kellett, general manager since 2012, points out.
Another impetus was preparation for the 2023 Winter World University Games, second to the Olympics as the largest multi-sport competition in the world. Whiteface will host the alpine events.
World University Games events:
The 11 days of the WUG start Jan. 12 with an opening ceremony at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid.
Venues are at Canton, Potsdam, Gore Mountain, Paul Smiths, Saranac Lake and Whiteface, which opens with the Super-G Jan. 13.
To open by Thanksgiving, snowmakers get ready by Halloween. If they see a good weather window of 48 hours or more, they “dump on it.”
The first objective is to cover from the top of the gondola to the base lodge—over two miles. In 2021, because of the upgrades, they blanketed the summit too and opened the Summit Quad by the earliest date in the mountain’s history—Dec. 4. With an assist from mother nature, they were able to open the summit even earlier this year on Nov. 19.
Temperature, humidity, and wind are all factors. Morgan Langey, the snowmaking supervisor, has his preferences: “We would love to see little-to-no wind with about 10 degrees and closer to zero by the time you get to the top.”
It takes about 180,000 gallons of water to lay down a foot of snow on an acre of slope. Compressed air mixed with pressurized water at the nozzle atomizes the water into snow – though the science is complicated.
Whiteface has a limited water supply because the Ausable River supports a trout fishery. An agreement between the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Olympic Regional Development Authority, which operates the Olympic venues for the state, limits Whiteface to withdraw no more than 6,000 gallons per minute when the river flow rate is 51.4 cubic feet per second or greater, and withdrawals shall not reduce the river flow rate below 38 cubic feet per second. An electronic gauge is located adjacent to Pumphouse #1, but operators also know that when water is overtopping the weir, the flow is above 91 cubic feet per second.
According to ORDA, the river flow minimum has never been triggered, but snowmaking does push up against the 6,000-gallons per minute limit.
Gary Henry, stream restoration manager with the Ausable River Association, has teased out figures using the past six years of data from US Geological Survey. He found the West Branch had a low yield of 79.3 billion gallons in 2021 to a high of about 117 billion in 2019. Even in winters when Whiteface pulls 500 million gallons, the usage is minimal compared to the total flow (only about 0.6% in a low-flow year, even smaller for high-flow years). He has not analyzed daily numbers or instantaneous flow rates.
Whiteface’s water usage since the upgrades has fallen from 560.6 million gallons in 2019 to less than 269 million in 2021.
Compressed air is another limited resource. Eight, 800-horsepower compressors push about 30,000 cubic feet of air per minute. The trick for Langey and his crew is maximizing the water without tapping out the air supply – another reason upgrades include newer, more energy-efficient snow guns that use less air.
Grooming equipment has also seen major advances. Computerized drags, known as tillers, with barrels of teeth that spin, provide various settings such as down pressure and cutter bar depth.
Each night, five groomers tackle almost 25 miles of trails that need multiple passes. Most expert trails require winching; 3000-foot cables attach to anchor points at the top of the runs and lower the snowcats down the mountain and across the slope. One trail, Hoyt’s High, uses two snowcats, one attached to the other.
Different cats have different specialties. Park cats have attachments designed for terrain parks and moguls. Whiteface hosts several freestyle and mogul competitions every year, sometimes including World Cup events. The attachments articulate differently to manage transitions on jumps or dig deeper.
Langey’s radio crackles: An avalanche at the top of Skyward, an expert trail off the summit, closed at the time. A number of Langey’s crew were standing nearby.
“Just checking to make sure we got everybody accounted for.”
Langey began working as a snowmaker at Whiteface in the fall of 2001. He hesitates to share stories. “I don’t want to freak anyone out. I’ve been for some pretty wild rides on this mountain.”
Both Kellett and Langey agree that risk management has improved from “back in the day.”
“(Being safe) is not that much harder,” Langey says. “You examine how dangerous the situation is and ask, how can we avoid getting hurt?”
After the avalanche, he opens up. “We were up on the Skyward and begin our gun run. A ski patrolman makes a couple of cuts down through, just checking the quality of the snow, and I hear that snap.” He slaps his hands together.
“It’s loud and you can feel it in your chest and all the sudden every inch of snow from the gun to the other side of the trail is starting to slab and ooze down the trail, eight or ten inches deep, big cubes and weird shapes, just liquid moving down that trail. It’s the most surreal thing I’ve ever seen.”
Kellett expresses his constant concern over the weather. “We don’t have any control and that’s our biggest hurdle. Mother nature will beat you down. When she wants to pound on us, she does. She takes all the snow from a trail and puts it over into the trees or the high peaks. She’s like, deal with it. I don’t care. You figure it out.
“You’ll see weather patterns that are just crazy. We’re worried about staff getting hurt and what we’re going to do on Skyward when it’s 25 below and there’s a 30 mile-an-hour wind. How are we going to protect our staff? How are we going to protect our equipment? How are we managing our guests at that time?”
Langey acknowledges the challenges as well. “The wind comes in and takes off our nice surface. And when you’re down to the hard pack, you either lay down more product, wait for a natural snowfall, or move it from above because once you get down to that, even a tiller can only do so much.”