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Northern Rockies

The Best Opening Day in Decades

Alterra Mountain Co. invested $28.2 million for improvements this season at Winter Park, including $4 million just for improved snowmaking.

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When Winter Park announced its massive snowmaking upgrade project last March, the average skier might have found it hard to grasp how throwing $4 million at some snow guns would actually make a difference. But, as Winter Park opens early for its 78th season on November 14, 2018, skiers will likely notice how major that snow upgrade proved to be on run one. 

“It’s going to really hit home with people how important these upgrades are,” Resort Spokesperson Steve Hurlbert said. The new system, which includes laying 40,000 feet of new pipe and adding new guns, has increased the resort’s snowmaking capacity threefold. 

“The gondola is the sexy new addition,” Hurlbert continued, “But I’d argue that snow making upgrades are just as important because they allow us to accelerate opening our prized terrain.”

Translation, please? More runs, earlier. And by prized terrain, Hurlbert means the Mary Jane territory, of course.

“We’re looking at opening Sunspot by Thanksgiving, and Mary Jane soon after that,” Hurlbert said.

Because most of the snow on the Jane side still comes from Mother Nature, it usually can’t be opened until early December. But the Jane trail and Sleeper will receive some man-made stuff this year, as they are key runs on that side of the mountain. And as snow making improvements continue throughout the years, Mary Jane and other upper mountain areas will likely see more artificial snow.

“If snow making allows us to consistently open Mary Jane around Thanksgiving, that’s game changer for us,” Hurlbert said.

Last year, snowmaking started on October 26. This year, the resort was able to begin October 8. Hurlbert says their goal has always been to have as much terrain open as possible by Thanksgiving, the first big milestone in the ski season, as this can be crucial for providing customer momentum to carry the resort through the whole season. And who decides what runs get the early snow? The vice president and director of mountain operations, C.A. Lane and Bob Holme, who work closely to spearhead the snowmaking operations.

“They make the decision of where we point the guns and which runs we hammer,” Hurlbert said, likening opening runs to dominos falling. “They have to make sure the terrain we open up integrates with what’s already open. Snowmaking on the Park side can actually help us open the Jane side earlier. It’s a real science.”

Enjoying the bumps on Roundhouse, on the Mary Jane side.
Enjoying the bumps on Roundhouse on the Mary Jane side during the 2017 season.Photo courtesy of Winter Park Resort/Chris Wellhausen

Not only will the extra snow allow Winter Park to open terrain on time, but areas with a solid foundation of man-made snow hold up better throughout the year, even into the warm days in March. Since man-made snow typically has a higher water content than natural snow, it does a better job of insulating the entire snowpack. This helps retain the overall quality of the surface snow, including that Winter Park favorite—light, fluffy powder.

Despite these benefits, many eco-friendly skiers worry that snow making wastes too much water. However, Hurlbert says that the extra ground water that snow making provides after ski season helps to inhibit forest fires as well as counteract drought conditions on the Front Range, as that’s where all the runoff goes. Plus, the actual snow making equipment is more efficient than ever, making the whole operation more sustainable. Instead of diesel engines, Winter Park’s new system is electric, and the addition of two high efficiency air compressors allows the resort to pump more air through the system while using less energy to do it.

All this innovation has been a long time coming. Although Winter Park was one of the first ski areas in Colorado to implement a snow making system in 1976, the system remained ironically untouched over the next 42 years, other than the odd repair.

“We’re definitely playing catch up with other resorts,” Hurlbert said. “Some of our neighbors have much more efficient, comprehensive systems, but we’re making huge strides, and it won’t be long before we’re on par with resorts like Vail, Copper, and Breck.”

Vail opens on November 14, 2018 with 500 acres, while other resorts open with a range of 50-100. Winter Park will open with 55, but this won’t be its last year for snow making developments.

“Aside from more general upgrades, our goals are to get more snow making higher up and expand into Mary Jane,” Hurlbert said. “Hopefully there’s no end to the improvements.”

Time will tell. But anything that makes the Jane side skiable earlier is fine by us.