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2005-2006 ski preview RESORTS UNDER THE GUN Ski areas adopting latest technology in snowmaking to overcome weather, economic problems

You wouldn't think not enough snow would be a problem here. Don't tell that to Western New York ski area operators, who have spent mountains of cash so they can overcome nature's shortcomings and do it faster.

The payoff for all that spending is not always visible, as it would be for new slopes and chair lifts, but it can be seen in earlier starts, longer seasons, better snow quality and in some cases resort survival.

"You would not be in business if you depended on natural snow," said Ray Wozniak, who has managed snowmaking and grooming operations at Kissing Bridge for years. "Look at KB, our South area ran 2-3 weeks all last year because we have no snowmaking at the South area."

Wozniak is not overstating the problem because those who leave themselves at the mercy of nature may soon be out of business.

Jane Eshbaugh, the marketing director at Holiday Valley, remembers when Wing Hollow was unable to open one year in the early 1980s and was able to open for only four days the next winter. By the third year it was closed, one of the many casualties of the last 20 years.

The National Ski Areas Association reports that between the 1984-85 and 2004-05 ski seasons, the number of resorts in the United States fell from 727 to 492, a drop of one third. A lot of the closings were weather related.

Resort operators in Western New York face challenges unique to the region or to the state, some meteorological and some economic.

Technological advances in snowmaking, some developed in the region, help overcome difficulties in both areas.

Western New York's weather presents resorts with several hurdles. One is an uneven distribution of snow in the region. A second is that a lot of our snow falls early in winter before Lake Erie freezes so that by February nature can't be counted on to resurface the slopes. A third is that our freeze-thaw-freeze weather can bring about rapid changes in skiing conditions. And a fourth is that our high humidity is hostile to snowmaking.

>Costs raise lift prices

Our economy presents problems because of higher insurance costs, a minimum wage that has increased from $5.15 per hour to $6 and will jump to $6.75 in January and $7.15 in 2007, and increased energy costs. The lion's share of snowmaking costs comes in labor (most of it seasonal and at minimum wage) and in the energy needed to run air compressors and groomers.

Those factors contributed to a steep rise in the price of lift tickets this year. Looking only at the price of eight-hour passes, most areas are charging six to 10 percent more this year with Peek 'n Peak posting the largest increase at 12.8 percent ($39 to $44).

In recent years, area resorts have spent millions of dollars to become less dependent on the elements. They put it into snowguns, pumps that get more water to those guns, groomers to spread the snow and turn over icy surfaces and facilities that give resorts access to more water.

>Capacity increased

Ratnik Industries of Rochester, which has supplied snowmaking equipment and expertise to all but one Winter Olympics since 1980, has developed technology to make sure the money is well spent.

In snowmaking, atomized water is shot upward using compressed air. The wet bulb temperature, a combination of air temperature and humidity, determines the amount of water that turns into snow. The higher the humidity, the higher the wet bulb reading and the lower the volume of snow produced.

Ratnik spokesman Gary Helming said snow can be made at 34 degrees if the humidity is 30 percent. If the humidity is high, 28 degrees can be too warm for efficient snowmaking.

Ratnik's nozzles allow more water to be pumped using half of the compressed air. Helming said Ratnik has refitted many of Holiday Valley's snowguns with the new nozzles, making them 35-50 percent more efficient.

Ratnik has also developed systems that allow snow guns to be operated by one person sitting at a computer workstation. Holiday Valley purchased this type of gun for Cindy's Run.

The company tests its equipment at Bristol Mountain, which has some automated tower mounted guns that not only can be turned on remotely but can be adjusted for changes in temperature, humidity and wind direction. They also can be set individually to account for temperature differences on the mountain; it can be seven degrees colder at the summit than at the base.

Helming expects Eastern ski areas to adopt automated equipment over the next 20 years as it becomes more affordable.

Bristol Mountain spokesman Ryan Robbins said it takes one person one hour to adjust 10 guns. With remote operation, all 10 guns can be running as soon as conditions are right. This is crucial since the colder the temperatures, the more efficient the guns are. Consider this: each tower gun can turn 25 gallons of water per minute into snow under the worst of conditions, and 110 gallons per minute at the optimum temperature of 5 degrees.

"You want to make more snow in smaller windows," Holiday Valley president Dennis Eshbaugh said.

Eshbaugh said Holiday Valley now uses 1,000 to 1,200 kilowatt hours for snowmaking and wants to get it under 500.

Another benefit is the guns allow resorts to make more snow at night when electricity rates can be more than one third lower.

Two other factors resorts have focused on are water capacity and grooming. Holiday Valley will build a 13-acre lake that will hold 62 million gallons above the Tannenbaum area in the next two summers, giving crews the ability to make more snow faster.

Wozniak says Kissing Bridge, which uses snowguns developed at HoliMont, has increased its capacity from 1,400 to 2,000 gallons per minute in the last five years.

Here's some perspective. According to Ratnik's Web site, it takes 139,322 gallons of water to put one foot of snow over one acre (43,560 square feet). So Kissing Bridge can now put cover an acre with a foot of snow in 69 minutes and 40 seconds. Five years ago, it would have taken 99.5 minutes.

Also helping in the snowmaking blizzard is a product developed by the Bioengineering Division of Kodak called Snowmax Snow Inducer. A Peek 'n Peak spokesperson said the inhibitor promotes freezing and translates into a 30 percent increase in snowmaking capacity. This adds up to a lot more snow for Peek 'n Peak, which spends $300,000 annually to convert 56 million gallons of water into powder.

Here are the advantages to skiers and snowboarders of improved snowmaking and more and better groomers.

*Expanded capacity lets resorts open sooner: Robbins said Bristol can now open top to bottom on the first day.

*Snowmaking makes terrain parks possible. "You couldn't do a terrain park without snowmaking," KB's Wozniak said. "You have to make a lot of snow to make big table tops."

*Snowmaking allow resorts to stay open longer because machine-made snow lasts longer than natural snow.

*Faster snowmaking means better conditions. Snow made at colder temperatures has less water content so it doesn't melt as fast. It also allows for quicker resurfacing of skied off or icy areas, especially when there's no snow in the forecast.

"The skiing surface changes rapidly in New York," Helming said. "In the East you get a lot of ups and downs so you are constantly redoing the surface."

*Wozniak says snow made with the inhibitor is less chunky than snow made without it, making grooming easier.

"Snowmaking is the insurance policy of the industry," Kissing Bridge president Mark Halter said.

Area resorts have paid the premium.


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