My essay on snowmaking and Johannes Kepler, snow and Miss Smilla's Sense of... in the Weeklings and then Salon. Snowmaking? It's the most dangerous part of skiing. Think a bit like the Northeast's version of Ice Road Truckers: Blinding cold, freezing chill, frostbite, darkness, icy slopes, and the threat of death at every turn — all in a day’s work for a snowmaker. Of course I ride out with them to work.
Entries in snowmaking (2)
This in this week's Catskill Mountain News. Plattekill is a ski area that now has a new attraction. Officially it's a snowmaking pond. I've other designs on it. Well, after the snow.
“Welcome to the Grand Canyon.” Laszlo Vajtay waves towards the gaping hole at the top of Plattekill Mountain. The cliffs below, with their walls of rock, dwarf the ski area’s owner and even the Komatsu excavator behind him. Sixty feet deep, the “canyon” is not some folly on the top of the mountain. It’s a new pond to hold water for snowmaking.
Usually this time of year ski areas are making (and praying for) snow, and while that’s true for Plattekill too, they’re thinking more long range – a whole year out – to the 2012-2013 season. That’s when the pond will be done. Building it has taken 100,000 pounds of explosives, and the wires to ignite the charges still stick out of the rock, not far from where Vajtay stands.
For years he’d wanted to expand the pond, but the project was daunting and expensive. Since he bought the ski area in 1993 he’s kept adding snowmaking capacity.
All about snowmaking
“Snowmaking, snowmaking, snowmaking has always been my mantra,” he says like realtors talk location, location, location, and indeed snowmaking is key to making ski areas in the Northeast a success.
But the problem for Plattekill has been a lack of water. Come August 28, like much of the region, they had a new water problem. Too much of it. While the base and lodge were largely spared in the flood, some trails suffered from erosion and the pond was damaged.
“It needed repairing, so that was a natural time to increase the size,” Vajtay says. He worked closely with the DEP on permits and plans, and, he explains, “We reached out to friends of ours in the business and in construction to see what to do.”
Now Plattekill has one of the few good things Irene has produced – the canyon, which is so big it will take two years to complete.
The pond has come with other added benefits. The rock from it has been used to stabilize trails that washed out and is responsible for a new parking lot at Plattekill’s base, expanding the hill’s smallish lot to accommodate far more cars so skiers no longer have to make a long trek to the lodge on busy days.
Materials help out
Even the road to get trucks to the top to build the pond has been a bonus. It widened Powder Puff, the two-mile-long beginner trail, ringing the mountain. Perhaps the most fortuitous side effect, though, has been for area flood relief itself. The stone is going to help local road crews and for repairs to the Gilboa Dam.
Though the pond won’t be fully functional until next year, Plattekill is still benefitting from the “canyon” this season. Recently a team at the top of the hill was welding pipes so the pond can be used now. They’ll be removed in the spring to finish the project. The new pond isn’t the only expansion at Plattekill either.
Finding a double purpose for everything is part of how Plattekill makes ends meet. The ski industry works on tight margins. It’s an expensive business between insurance, energy costs and snowmaking. Add to that fickle weather and customers, and it can be a challenging business — particularly for small mom-and-pop hills. Many over the past two decades have gone out of business, but Vajtay has found ways to keep growing, and this season has been no different. He’s already acquired 45 additional snow guns. Some came from Stratton, others from Big Tupper and HKD, a large East Coast snowmaking company.
“There are even two big turbine fan guns,” Vajtay says incredulously, “from Amesbury Snow Park just outside Boston.”
He can grow like this because he works hard to find bargains, searching out used equipment to give it new life. He’ll drive across the Northeast himself to pick up parts and bring them back to Roxbury.
“In a business like this,” he says, “you can’t afford to sit on a huge amount of debt. If you borrow money based on the cash value of the business in a year like this year –” his voice trails off. He doesn’t need to finish his sentence to make it clear that you wouldn’t make it. Indeed the warm weather has been hurting ski areas from Pennsylvania to Maine.
Finding new uses
The most surprising addition to his snowmaking arsenal was finding a new, used air compressor. The Norbord fiberboard plant in Deposit closed and the building was being torn down. “They were selling off the compressors,” he says. Not just useful in making medium density fiberboard, they’re essential in snowmaking. This summer he repurposed one and installed it on the hill.
“It will,” he explains, “be great for Plattekill. Not only will it replace three diesel generators but it will make us more green, save us money on expensive diesel and make us less dependent on fossil fuels.”