For some skiers it may be hard to wait for the first day of a new season. It’s disappointing when the weather doesn’t cooperate with snow and cold temperatures. Your first day on the slopes can be delayed.
It’s one level of frustrating if your first day must be postponed. But for ski resort owners and operators, the variability of weather impacts business decisions and the bottom line.
To improve predictability, ski resorts long ago turned to technology, adding artificial snowmaking capabilities over the course of decades that help keep things operational even during low snow years and enabling earlier starts to the season with man-made snow if the weather hasn’t cooperated. But snowmaking is a labor-intensive and imperfect process, and it doesn’t always yield the best quality snow. The snowmaking team runs up and down the mountain to evaluate conditions, turn on the snow guns, and turn off the snow guns. It’s an imprecise art.
Digital Transformation Hits the Slopes
Looking to improve predictability, trail conditions, efficiency, and maybe even open the resort earlier, Vail Ski Resort in Colorado -- the second-largest single-mountain operation in the US at 5,300 acres, 200 trails, and 32 lifts -- wanted to bring the most modern technology to its operations. It started planning for a major infrastructure investment project in 2018.
“The reason why we made this enhancement and why we created this incredible system was the result of understanding guests’ demand for an early ski season and ride experience,” says John Plack, senior communications manager at Vail.
Vail averages 350 inches of natural snow per year, but the number varies quite a bit. In 2018 the resort saw 281 inches, and that was significantly more than the 171 inches it got in 2016. More efficient snowmaking could make conditions more predictable. What’s more, as a stretch goal, if Vail could open four or even five weeks earlier, it could extend its season by 25%, which could mean a major impact to revenue.
The investment, of course, included modern snow guns, each equipped with its own weather station with sensors collecting data. But it also called for a detailed GIS mapping of the resort. Vail needed to make the right decisions about where to place their 421 new snow guns, 19 miles of pipes for air and water, and 25 transformers -- the physical infrastructure of snowmaking. There was also a timeline. The resort wanted this new infrastructure operational before the start of the 2019 ski season.
Standardizing GIS Data Terms
The GIS mapping project was also an exercise in standardizing and managing data.
“Different teams on the mountain had different ways of referring to things,” Plack says. “Ski patrol would refer to a location by their old telephone box numbers, like 115, which would mean nothing to anyone else. The snowmaking team refers to different areas based on the names of different pumps or equipment.”
Mike Krois, who was working as Vail’s GIS specialist, had begun working on a digital twin of the mountain in 2016, creating a new map using the ArcGIS Online environment from GIS technology company Esri. This work included talking to the old-timers on the resort staff so that he could add to the map the existing infrastructure of pipes, electrical work, and snow guns on the mountain. He then used this collected data and GIS to generate smart maps for employees. The snowmaking, snow grooming, and the rest of the operations team now all use this digitized map that they can access on handheld ruggedized devices as they are out on the mountain, Plack says.
“If someone says I’m at this specific location, everyone now knows exactly where that is, saving them all kinds of time and training,” he says. “We’ve got 500 acres of snowmaking on Vail, and so right now having that kind of solution where everyone was speaking the same language was a big piece of this enhancement as well.”
In 2018, before the modern snowmaker project, much of Vail’s snowmaking capacity was concentrated near the midsection of the mountain, and those trails weren’t ideal due to sun exposure and a lack of beginner runs.
Planning Placement of Snow Guns
“Years of weather data [were included in the smart map] used to plan where these new guns were going to be located down to the exact positioning,” says Plack.
“Then it was a little bit of walking and studying. Where does the wind come in? What do the temperatures do across the space of the mountain? So, a combination of technology and good old-fashioned mountain planning,” says Plack. Bill Kennedy, director of land development at the resort, was also integral to the project. He had spent nearly four decades planning chairlifts, trails, and restaurants at the resort. For this project, he spent many days walking the mountain with Krois, and he was logging 25,000 to 30,000 steps per day on his Fitbit.
The Science of Snowmaking
Efficient snowmaking requires precise weather conditions, and the important metric to look at is “wet-bulb temperature” or the temperature read by a thermometer covered in a water-soaked cloth. The temperature reading will be different if the cloth is dry or is wet. Wet-bulb temperature measurement incorporates data about how dry the air is, too. To make snow, both the temperature and the humidity must fall below certain thresholds. If it’s too warm or too humid, you will end up just shooting water onto the mountain, creating ice, and no one wants that. That’s not a good experience for skiers. And it requires a considerable amount of work by the snow groomers to correct the issue.
Vail was able to open its season a week early in 2021 on November 12, due to its strategic placement of snowmaking equipment planned with the GIS map that leveraged weather and geographic data. Plack says this opening date ties for the earliest in the resort’s history.
By mid-November 2021, the resort had opened three runs, or about 85 acres, in spite of the fact that the early season of 2021 was deemed by ski enthusiasts as disappointing in terms of snowfall. Vail had placed the new snow guns at the highest elevations of the resort this time, and that’s the part of the mountain that opened first.
Benefits of the New System
The new snow guns are automated and can turn themselves off and on based on the perfect weather conditions for snowmaking. That’s a big change.
“The old way of making snow is that you have snowmakers run up and down the hill and turn on the pipes when the temperatures are in the right place and then run down the hill, and then back up to turn them off,” says Plack. That saves a lot of steps for the snowmakers. But the new system doesn’t just save on that labor.
“If you have people running up and down the mountain turning things on and off you can miss the weather window as temperatures warm up during the day,” Plack says. “Our snowmakers are racing against time and if they are slow then they end up putting water out on the snow surface.”
The snow guns and their associated infrastructure are also monitored and can be controlled at a physical location called “Snow Central” -- a big control room that gives the team a view of the mountain, conditions, and snowmaking capabilities.
The new system -- the GIS smart map digital twin and automated snow guns -- made that first day of skiing arrive a week earlier at Vail this year.
“First and foremost, it’s about providing that guest experience and meeting guests’ demand for early season skiing and riding,” Plack says.