The Middlebury College Snow Bowl is one of the more iconic parts of the College, and many students will say that having a ski area close by was one of the deciding factors in their choice of college. Some years, the skiing is fantastic and the snow conditions perfect – many juniors and seniors speak longingly about the ski season in early 2015, when feet of powder fell onto the hills of the Snow Bowl.
But there have also been weeks, months, and sometimes full seasons that have a severe lack of snow. Last year was particularly bad, with many ski areas in the region receiving 50 to 80 percent less snow than normal.
This past week has given skiers and snowboarders something to celebrate: the ski area has been hit hard by snowstorms recently, and every run on the mountain has excellent snow coverage. Up until now, though, the conditions have not been stellar. The relatively warm rains that hit Vermont during the middle of January, in particular, meant that snow melted quickly up at the ski area, and skiers were faced with icy and slushy conditions for much of Winter Term.
But terrible snow conditions mean more than just disappointed students hoping to hit the slopes after class: they also prove to be a challenge for the people responsible for keeping the Snow Bowl running.
Peter Mackey, manager of the Snow Bowl, explained that the main goal of the area is to keep at least a few of the runs covered with manmade snow. To do this, Mackey and his crew have to proactively account for rapidly changing weather and slope conditions by aggressively making snow for the first part of the season.
As a result of its particular snowmaking practices, the Snow Bowl can stay open more consistently through warm weather than other nearby ski areas. “Our snowmaking philosophy [is to make] enough snow on each trail —as we make snow on them — to not have to go back again,” Mackey said. “A lot of areas make just enough to get a trail open and then hope for natural snow to augment what they make.”
The Snow Bowl begins making snow after Thanksgiving and continues until the five main runs have a solid base of snow. As a result, the Snow Bowl was able to stay open in spite of several days of rain that had melted away much of the snow and decimated the snowpack down at Rikert Nordic Area.
“Although we did seem to experience a thaw/warm-up event almost weekly for most of December and January, we were never close to closing because of adequate manmade snow,” Mackey said. “Manmade [snow] is so much more durable and less susceptible to thaw events because of a much higher water content than natural snow.”
Due to the nature of the snowmaking machines, manmade snow is composed of much smaller crystals than natural snow. This means that it is more dense, which in turn means that it can hold up better under both heavy use and warmth.
Mackey also stated that the Snow Bowl’s operations were not significantly affected by the unseasonable weather in January. Although it can happen that the area has to decrease its staff due to poor conditions, Mackey has not been forced to do that yet this year. “Because the thaw events rarely lasted more than a couple [days], we never had to lay off staff between our needs for operating two lifts and manning three snowmaking shifts,” he said.
However, even though he did not have to change his staff, Mackey and his team cannot passively wait for the weather to happen. “It does require good interpretation of weather forecasts and crew willing to be flexible with their work schedules,” he said.
For the Snow Bowl’s ski patrol, bad conditions present specific challenges for the way they work. In spite of this, people often enjoy skiing in slushy snow and warmer weather because of the softer slopes. “Slush conditions are fun and people seem to enjoy skiing it,” said Octave Lepinard ’19.5, a new member of the ski patrol. “It’s really when the freeze cycle comes in that we get injuries.”
For patrollers, the main issue that comes from these warm weather patterns is that the snow melts — and then, when it gets cold again, it freezes. This can make the ski hills both rock-solid and icy, a potentially dangerous combination.
Jessie Klinck ’17, co-president of ski patrol, explained that these conditions require the patrollers to be particularly vigilant. “When there isn’t a lot of snow, or it’s frezing cold with howling winds, we have to rely on each other for support and help,” she said. “We have to be looking out for our own safety in addition to the safety of the guests on the mountain.”
Periods of low snow cover followed by freezing weather also force the patrollers to take special precautions. “Icy conditions are very challenging and require us to sweep trails making sure that the runs are skiable for the public,” Klinck said.
In addition, rain eats away at snow cover, disappointing skiers and patrollers alike. “When it rains, it’s just disappointing because as patrollers we would like to have the whole mountain open,” Lepinard said. “But if it’s unsafe for the public to ski it, or [if] being extracted in the case of an injury might be difficult due to lack of snow, we need to have it closed.”
Mackey stated that the possibility of the Snow Bowl having to close is remote due to their maintenance practices. “We would only close in the very extreme situation of not having adequate coverage for safe use of any of our snowmaking trails,” he said.
Fortunately for Mackey, the management and ski patrol, the ski area no longer faces any risk of closing. Over the past week, the area has received well over a foot of new snow.