snow guns blowing snow

Backstage at Sugarbush

Snowmakers and groomers work all night so you can ski all day. A look at the mountain operations that go into each day at Sugarbush.

An hour before the lifts open, John Hammond nods a greeting to Skip Andrews, a scruffy fifteen-year veteran lift attendant at the Super Bravo Express Quad, and boards the four-person chair for his solo ride up Gadd Peak. Hammond unloads, curves his skis left, and aims down Valley House Traverse, quickly passing underneath the Valley House double chair, on to Snowball, and then easing onto Spring Fling—taking in a bird’s-eye view of the Lincoln Peak base area. Along the way, Hammond surveys the terrain for fallen trees and inspects snow that has been made or groomed the night before. By 10 a.m., Hammond and the ski patrol staff he oversees have checked every trail on the mountain.

In 1991, John Hammond was a marketing intern at Sugarbush, making phone calls to colleges to convince them to book a ski outing to the mountain. Today, he serves as vice president of mountain operations and recreation services, overseeing almost everything having to do with the on-mountain skiing and riding experience. He rules over a diverse crew of snowmakers, groomers, ski patrollers, ski instructors, lift operators, and lift mechanics from a nondescript building at the base area of Lincoln Peak, sandwiched between the resort’s 1950s-era Valley House Lodge and the modern Super Bravo Quad.

Mountain operations headquarters is reminiscent of a clubhouse for athletes, and has that same familial disorder. Several medium-sized offices surround a large open room filled with cabinets, desks, and computers; the walls are neatly hung with racks of the latest Volkl skis, retro ski posters, and oversized Marker jackets. Several empty pizza boxes lie abandoned on a table. You pass through this entry room to the building’s epicenter—a narrow passageway barely fitting a long wooden conference table, several phones, and a file cabinet, with maps detailing all 111 trails at Sugarbush. This is the location of “snow plan”—Hammond’s standing 1 p.m. meeting that determines daily operations for the mountain, where the discussion covers snowmaking and grooming plans, snow conditions, on-mountain events, terrain park building, and the occasional crisis. A third and final room out back houses “dispatch,” the communication center that monitors all radio communication across both mountains. Dispatch is also the unofficial on-mountain doggy daycare, currently home to an English Foxhound, a Mastiff, a Cocker Spaniel, two Bernese Mountain Dogs, and three newly adopted puppies belonging to the head of ski patrol, the head of lift operations, and Hammond himself.

Before heading to the mountain, Hammond begins his weekday mornings as a short-order cook for his two daughters, ages five and seven. Soft-boiled eggs and homemade waffles with maple syrup are two standards in the home he shares with wife, Heather, a Burlington-based employment lawyer, and their new Labrador retriever puppy, Rosey.

By the time he walks his daughters to the school bus, Hammond already has a sense of the mountain. He’s checked Intellicast and Accuweather for the forecast and called in to Lincoln Peak’s CB1—the mountain’s main artery for snowmaking, which houses a pump station and three compressors responsible for converting approximately 187 million gallons of water from the Mad River and the Mt. Ellen pond into 1,000 acres of man-made snow each season (at a one-foot depth). Come spring, that snow melts and runs downhill back where it came from. CB1 is manned twenty-four hours a day during the snowmaking season, and Hammond calls there each morning at 6 a.m. to get a report from the night supervisor on snowmaking and grooming progress from the previous night.

Often, Hammond’s call reaches Mike Wing, the mountain’s snow surfaces manager since 2006. Wing has been in the industry for close to thirty years, working up through the ranks from his first resort job as a nighttime snowmaker at $3.75 an hour. Wing’s longevity in the field, and his vast experience with New England weather patterns, make him something of an expert in snowmaking production. Hammond and Wing discuss issues such as which trails received new man-made snow the previous night, whether temperatures registered as forecasted, and how those temperatures affected the efficiency of the snow production.

Temperature and humidity are the two most critical factors dictate whether or not snowmaking will occur. “To be most efficient, we make snow at twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit or lower,” says Hammond. “If pressed, we will push it as high as twenty-eight degrees, but that is not ideal.” The lower the humidity, the higher temperatures can be for making snow.

In late fall, as the mountain prepares for the season, Hammond and Wing fixate on the weather forecast to begin snow production. Typically, that date falls in early November, which allows the mountain to open the week before Thanksgiving and stay open for a season that usually lasts around 160 days. During the last two falls, however, temperatures have been warmer than expected, pushing the start of snowmaking closer to mid-November.

Once the cold does arrive, Wing and his crew begin to blanket the mountain in sections, starting at the higher elevations. “We’ll start at Heaven’s Gate first, hitting Jester, Organgrinder, and Downspout. Then we’ll make our way to Lower Jester and Lower Downspout. Our goal in early season is to get open top to bottom as soon as possible,” Hammond explains.

This translates to Wing’s team of snowmakers laying approximately two to three feet of man-made snow on a designated trail to provide the initial layer that allows a trail to open. Hammond rattles off a series of formulas to give a sense of how much water and power are required to open one section of trail: “To lay down two feet of snow on Lower Organgrinder, which is a nine-acre trail, at, say twenty degrees Fahrenheit… requires about twenty-seven hours of snowmaking by forty snow guns, using a total of about 119,000 kilowatts of energy. This adds up to 3.25 million gallons of water pumping at a rate of 2,000 gallons per minute.”

At six feet tall and a good 250 pounds, Hammond doesn’t have the appearance of a nerdy numbers guy, but in fact he’s constantly running the formulas in his head to keep an eye on how much energy the mountain expends on snowmaking. Snowmaking is a combination of air and water. Energy used to produce compressed air and pump water for snowmaking is the mountain’s single largest annual expense after payroll.

The majority of the water for snowmaking comes from a pond fed by the Mad River and located just behind the Kingsbury Farm on Route 100 in Warren. (A second, smaller stream-fed pond next to the Inverness lift, as well as two other mountain brooks, supply Mt. Ellen.) Less than two months before snowmaking was to begin in the fall of 2011, Tropical Storm Irene caused more than $700,000 worth of damage to the pond. The very next day, Hammond called in Wing to begin the reconstruction necessary to repair the pond and get it operable by the mountain’s November 1 snowmaking target. By Halloween the pond was fully rebuilt, and refilled with 25 million gallons of new water. In the reconstruction process, over 80,000 cubic feet of sediment—in the form of gravel and soil—was removed from the pond, most of which was channeled to local farmers and contractors.

When the mountain is making snow at full capacity, it is operating 120 snow guns, including forty new low-energy Snowlogic fan guns purchased in partnership with the Green Mountain Valley School. The efficiency of snow-gun technology has changed dramatically in recent years. The amount of energy required to run one snow gun twenty years ago can now run sixty guns.

Despite the technological changes, snowmaking remains one of the most grueling jobs in the industry. Wing’s crew—approximately forty strong at the height of the season—is out in the dead of night, in the coldest of temperatures, moving guns and lines, starting them up and breaking them down, and repairing damaged hoses.

“You don’t worry so much about getting cold as about exposing skin,” acknowledges Wing. “It’s a very physical job.”

Because of the nature of the work, there is less continuity in snowmaking than in other areas. The supervisory staff has remained consistent over the years, but the worker bees tend to come and go. However, snowmaking experience allows for a greater understanding of mountain operations as a whole. So it is a training ground for other, perhaps more coveted on-mountain jobs, like grooming.

Most skiers and riders enjoy making turns on a freshly groomed trail, and many are willing to set the alarm on a vacation day for the opportunity to be the first on new “corduroy.” But few understand the science behind grooming, or the correlation between newly made snow and grooming. Wing uses the analogy of freshly laid eggs to explain the fragility of newly made snow. “If you run the groomer over the new snow too soon, you crush the eggs,” he says.

Wing likes to let new man-made snow cure twenty-four to forty-eight hours before grooming. That pause allows the high moisture content of the snow to seep out, so the snow becomes light, airy, and fluffy. Fresh natural snow can be groomed immediately after falling, provided there is enough of it. However, because of the water content and density of natural snow, a natural snow trail requires more of a base than a man-made trail to withstand the continuous tilling and compacting of a groomer. This is why trails like Moonshine and Lixi’s Twist are groomed less frequently than a run like Spring Fling—their depths rely solely on Mother Nature.

With a pained look on his face, Wing recalls the condition of Lincoln Peak’s Pushover a few years back, a trail that receives a lot of snowmaking: “We were in a rush to get it open for the Christmas holiday, and we were grooming right behind the snowmaking.” He adds regretfully, “It was hard as a rock most of the season.” When the temperatures don’t cooperate, Wing may find himself in a position where he is up against the wall on a trail. A situation like this literally keeps him up at night.

By mid-morning, Hammond and his ski patrol staff have visually checked every trail and made any changes to the day’s operating plan regarding trail openings or closings. His lift maintenance crew prepares for the midday inspections, which require a walk-through of each lift terminal for visual analyses of gear boxes and temperature gauges. Scott Crowell, a former air defense missile system technologist in the Army, manages the lift maintenance team, which deploys seven staff across both mountains on any given day. Crowell and his crew work to be invisible to the guest. “If guests don’t know we’re there, we’re doing our job,” he says.

His crew thrives on using their hands, working outdoors, and maintaining expertise on machines like Super Bravo and the Valley House double chair. They have all completed a three-year apprenticeship with the Vermont Tramway Authority, the same organization that runs annual inspections of every ski lift in the state. Much of the lift maintenance and routine repairs occur in the summer, the crew’s busiest time. By the opening of the winter season, Crowell has all sixteen public lifts upgraded, inspected, and ready to transport Sugarbush guests safely up the mountain.

Shutdowns of lifts during the season occur for a handful of reasons, including a customer misload, a communication line warning (signaling that one of the nine lines running between the base and top terminal has detected a problem), or an anti-collision fall on a detachable chair (where the computer senses the grip is not moving correctly through the terminal). Most often, Crowell’s experienced team can identify a problem quickly and find a solution. However, as lifts become more sophisticated, so do the devices that monitor them. Eighty percent of the time, lifts shut down because of a false indication from the sensors monitoring the ropes and assemblies. And then there is the nemesis of the lift maintenance team—the wind. Wind-hold days are incredibly stressful for Crowell and his team, whose entire concern is guest safety. On those days, Crowell’s team is monitoring every lift, watching from the tops to see what direction the wind is traveling and how it is affecting each lift. They watch to make sure that the wind isn’t strong enough to swing the chairs into a tower, which could cause a haul rope to jump the wheel. There are certain locations Crowell keys in on—for instance, tower ten on the Heaven’s Gate chair. Other parts of the mountain, like Castlerock and Inverness, are almost “safe zones,” rarely impacted by the wind.

Crowell errs on the side of safety, always. And it pays off. There has not been a lift derailment at Sugarbush during his six-year tenure. As for lift performance overall, the industry goal is for a machine to achieve 1 percent or less total downtime in a season. Crowell’s team, in conjunction with the lift operators, has achieved that goal for the last three seasons.

At 1 p.m., Hammond takes a seat at the head of the long wooden conference table and calls snow plan to order. To his right sits Win Smith, Sugarbush’s president and majority owner, whose presence is consistent with the number of days he skies at the mountain each season. (Last year, Smith logged ninety-eight.) Hammond quickly goes around the room, taking input from team members before efficiently laying out the snowmaking and grooming plan for the evening. Attendees—often representatives from ski school, race, guest services, or events—discuss logistics of fireworks displays, Allyn’s Lodge dinners, or on-mountain races. Other team members may point out problem areas on the mountain—thin spots, icy areas—or Hammond may solicit input on a particular trail. There is little time for small talk, though Hammond occasionally cracks a joke or acknowledges one of the wagging tails under the table. Within twenty minutes, the plan for the next twenty-four hours at the mountain has been determined.

Shutdown of the mountain begins as early as 3:15 p.m. at upper-mountain lifts. Colin Cascadden leads a ski patrol force that deploys across both mountains, sweeping every open trail to ensure that skiers and riders have ended their day safely. Between morning trail check and afternoon sweep, Cascadden’s team monitors the mountain, making sure guests are following the skier responsibility code and providing assistance as necessary. Guests who require more than just a safe transport down the mountain may be delivered to the Fletcher Allen Orthopedic Clinic, located just beneath Timbers Restaurant in Clay Brook. This clinic, run by the University of Vermont, has been operating at Sugarbush for more than thirty years and is home to one of the most extensive snow-sport injury studies in the world.

As patrol wraps up their final sweeps, the first wave of groomers begins rolling in. If the thought of a solitary eight-hour drive on a snow-covered, carless highway in the moonlight sounds appealing, then you are beginning to understand the lure of grooming. Add to that a mountain sunrise,

followed by early-morning first tracks on the product of your toil, and now you’re really getting the idea. This may explain why there is virtually no turnover in Sugarbush’s grooming department.

“It’s serenity,” says Mike Wing. “Out at night, all by yourself, with just the lights of the snowcat.”

These are guys who take pleasure in the clean, straight lines they lay in the snow. And they are employed for their painstaking perfectionism.

“I’m looking for seamless grooming,” Wing says. “I want them to take the extra pass, take their time … If you can’t make a trail perfect with the technology that is out there today, you don’t belong in a snowcat.”

The talent of the groomers may not be quite as apparent in the good snow years as in the tough ones. Beyond patience and precision, there is no hidden recipe necessary for making a foot of freshly fallen snow look good. There is, however, an expertise required for making a mountain without natural snow look appealing. In the 2011–12 season, twelve fewer feet of snow fell than the year before, seriously testing the mountain operations team, and the grooming team in particular. Yet numerous guests shared their surprise at how good their ski experience was despite the lack of snowfall. Much of this can be credited to Wing and his groomers. At key periods during the season, Wing’s team was literally ripping up and rebuilding trails. Engaging the blades on the Pisten Bully Elite Fleet—a cadre of top-of-the-line groomers and winches—the team would go in and cut up the snow from the edges of the trail, push the cut snow back into the trail’s middle section, and then groom the new piles of snow back out onto the trail. It was a labor-intensive and difficult task that paid off.

As the lifts come to a halt and the sun falls behind the mountains, Hammond and Wing make their way to the lift maintenance garage just beside tower three of Super Bravo, and meet up with the grooming team to review the details of the evening’s plan. On a peak day, the mountain may have accommodated 7,500 or 8,000 skiers, and trails will be showing their wear. But over the next sixteen hours, the snowmakers and groomers will deploy to various parts of the mountain, shooting new coats of snow on some trails, layers of corduroy stripes on many others. And with a bit of luck, Mother Nature will join the mix, to add a few inches of fluffy powder to the mountain that even the best of teams can only hope to emulate.

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