When it came to investing in snowmaking, New York State’s Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) went with the go-big mentality, leasing a TechnoAlpin Snow Factory for the Mount Van Hoevenberg nordic center and using the technology throughout the 2016/2017 winter season.
Following the previous 2015/2016 season, in which Mt. Van Hoevenberg, “Van Ho” for short, was open 37 days, according to ORDA’s annual report, the authority acquired and installed a self-contained snowmaking system at Van Ho, the 1980 Winter Olympic venue in Lake Placid, N.Y.
The Snow Factory was put in place, just behind the cross-country lodge, just before Thanksgiving.
This machine isn’t your grandfather’s snowmaking setup, where snow guns are positioned strategically along trails. Mounted on a flatbed trailer, a 40-foot ocean shipping container holds compressors and ice-making equipment. A blower sends crystals through a segmented orange hose up to 600 feet in length.
The Snow Factory hasn’t budged from its original position near a parking lot, yet the snow it has produced has been spread throughout the stadium and on trails up to 1.5 k away from its starting point.
According to Robin Smith, TechnoAlpin’s Colorado-based business manager, the Snow Factory has been in production for the last four years, but its technology isn’t brand new. IDE, an Israeli company that specializes in water desalination, developed a warm-weather snowmaking unit with different technology than the Snow Factory uses.
Smith explained that the Snow Factory at Van Ho is the only one in the U.S. and one of only 19 in the world. The best part? The Snow Factory will make snow in temperatures up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
Both Whiteface and Gore mountains, two of the alpine ski resorts that ORDA manages, use TechnoAlpin snow guns.
“Probably a year ago, we began a conversation with the success they [TechnoAlpin] were having in northern California with the machine that we ended up leasing,” explained Kris Cheney Seymour, Mt. Van Hoevenberg’s manager. “ORDA has its full attention and interest in the future of nordic sports at Mount Van Hoevenberg.”
When Seymour first spoke with FasterSkier on the phone in late January, the nordic center was dealing with changeable weather.
“Lake Placid has had a fairly light snow year and a fair amount of very heavy rain,” Seymour explained. “Traditionally, the stadium gets blasted in poor weather. This winter, we would have had a similar winter to what we had last year: no snow, ice conditions in the stadium. We’ve pretty much been open all but one day since Thanksgiving. The reason is the Snow Factory.”
Without the Snow Factory, Van Ho wouldn’t have been able to host St. Lawrence University’s Winter Carnival, Junior National qualifier races and other events, he said.
ORDA acquired the Snow Factory from TechnoAlpin after an alpine resort in California used it for a year. Arriving by truck the day before Thanksgiving, it took five days to haul from California at a cost of $7,000 dollars. According to ORDA’s Communication Director Jon Lundin, ORDA is leasing the Snow Factory for one year for $90,000 dollars.
In an email, Lundin explained that if ORDA decides to purchase the Snow Factory, it will pay a total of $500,000 dollars: $410,000 plus the amount already paid this season.
“We’ll make the decision later this spring as to whether or not we purchase the Snow Factory,” he wrote. “We’ll look at how it performed and how the cross-country venue benefited from its use.”
So how does this thing work?
Inside the shipping container are three icemakers, refrigeration equipment, a cooling tower, and a blowing system. The blowers move snow through a segmented orange hose. One can add segments to blow snow up to 600 feet away from the Factory.
“Other [traditional] snowmaking systems require a temperature and humidity component,” Reese Brown, executive director of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association, said on the phone. “Generally, 22 to 27 degrees and below is good snowmaking weather. The Snow Factory doesn’t require any conditions to make snow, because snow is generated inside the container and then spit out the hose. With the others, snow is made when it hits air temperature.”
“Snow is created within the shipping container,” Seymour said. “You can effectively make snow with 100-percent efficiency up to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. You’ll have diminished productivity, but you can make snow up to 80 degrees.”
Running on electricity, the Snow Factory draws from the ski lodge’s well, using 11 gallons of water a minute. The icemakers can be optimized for various climates. Seymour pointed out that northern California has a much drier climate than Lake Placid.
Leading up to U.S. Junior Nationals, held in Lake Placid from March 3-11, FasterSkier asked Seymour about the Factory’s capability to cover a 5-kilometer loop if the ground was bare. With snow already on the ground, Seymour reframed the question.
“It works differently than a traditional snow system, and you need to use it and plan for it in a different way,” he said. “The Snow Factory makes a known quantity of snow: two tons per hour. Depending on what our needs are for snow coverage and where we want to go with it, we need to work backwards and give ourselves enough time to blow that amount of snow.”
While the Factory is mounted on a trailer, the trailer hasn’t moved from its home behind the lodge. The primary locations for its manmade snow have been the stadium, the Innerloopen 3.3 k homologated ski loop, and the beginner trails close to the lodge.
Days before Junior Nationals, ORDA decided to move the weeklong event to the 2.5 k loop at the Olympic Jumping Complex, also known as the MacKenzie Intervale Ski Jumping Complex, closer to downtown Lake Placid.
“Six weeks out, we were aware that the long-term forecast had two almost weeklong periods that we were going to have very warm weather,” Seymour said in a follow-up interview after Junior Nationals (JNs).
Leading up to the championships, the Factory had been cranking almost around the clock. Seymour estimated that once a week, ORDA would shut it down for maintenance. Otherwise, it ran 24/7.
The stadium was covered a mix of natural and manmade crystals, 2 1/2 feet deep. The next focus was the sprint loop and the 3.3 k loop.
“We were moving snow 10 to 14 hours a day,” Seymour said. A PistenBully hauled snow in a 16-foot dump trailer to where they needed it. ORDA bought the trailer specifically for Van Ho.
Two weeks before JNs, groomers had buffed the 3.3 k loop to a 28-inch average depth with a mix of natural and manmade snow. Then, “We had really warm weather,” Seymour said. A warm three-day period with high winds and heavy rains reduced the base depth to 12-18 inches.
Then, starting Feb. 24, another three-day thaw cost precious base depth. A week before the championships, the race courses were down to an average depth of 4 to 8 inches.
The death blow came one night later. Driving rain and 50 mile per hour winds wiped out weeks of intense work. Wednesday morning, they inspected the courses. Not only was snow melting, but water was “flowing all over the place,” Seymour said. “We had large portions of the race trail that were totally washed out. There were sections of the trail that were lovely and totally groomable. But we also had a 100-meter section of the trail that was totally gone, like, 100 percent gone from pouring water.”
That morning, Van Ho still had snow stockpiled in the stadium out near the 3.3 k loop. But the forecast for Sunday through Wednesday of championship week called for temperatures in the mid 40s.
The forecast was accurate.
“We could have rebuilt the course so that it had four to six inches of snow everywhere,” Seymour said. “We knew that Mount Van Hoevenberg couldn’t survive a third major thaw in a four-week period.
“We had a course that was mostly built at the jumps,” he explained.
Blowing snow on site for 30 hours and working around the clock, ORDA employees also moved all the snow from the in-run of the ski jumps and the in-run and landing areas of the freestyle training area, which had a depth of eight feet. With that and the snow made on site, the Intervale loop was covered to an average depth of 2 1/2 feet for a successful Junior Nationals.
As a result of the venue change, there was only one adjustment to the schedule. Coaches, jurors and organizers agreed to switch the classic mass start to an individual start because of a narrow spot for two-way traffic midway through the loop.
While the Snow Factory ultimately didn’t play a part in JNs, it continued to blow snow at Van Ho, which remained open while the races happened took place at the jumps. Teams arrived early and trained on the trails, some choosing to cool down or train on off days at Van Ho.
“That was 100-percent Snow Factory,” Seymour said.
Besides the Factory, there have been other significant improvements to Van Ho. According to Allan Serrano, the FIS technical delegate who worked with ORDA to homologate Van Ho’s race trails, the stadium exit, along with much of the Interloopen portion of the Ladies’ 5 k loop, was widened.
“Most importantly they have been able to do rehabilitation work on the Ladies 5k, leveling and improving the water management so that it skis and grooms much better,” Serrano wrote. “They are able to have a high quality ski surface with lower snow.”
He added that Van Ho’s grooming capacity has also improved since its courses were certified in 2012.
“At that time the venue did not have a dedicated snowcat with track setters and now they have a machine with double track setters,” he wrote.
As race season winds down, what’s next? With the ability to make snow in warm temperatures, Seymour was intrigued by the opportunity to provide skiing on short loops in the offseason. He’s got the attention of John Farra, the high-performance director for U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing.
“We have found that it is most valuable for sit skiers especially to have access to snow in the ‘off season,’ ” Farra wrote in an email. “The nature of maneuvering a nordic sit ski on turns, downhills and out of the track is not something that can be duplicated on roller skis, so we have found [snow] much more valuable for sit skiers in advancing their technical skills. We are very interested in the Snow Factory project that ORDA has invested in and have been in touch with Kris about the possibility of getting our National Team to Lake Placid to take advantage of their new Snow Factory snow in this coming Games season.”
“Part of skiing currently is having a viable snowmaking option,” Seymour said. “The Snow Factory will guarantee the ability to open the venue when we want to and hold races as they’re scheduled; we can be counted on as a world-class venue. It’s a game changer.”
Peter Minde is a FasterSkier contributor and personal trainer specializing in functional strength and corrective exercise. Whether skiing, trail running, or cycling, he’s always looking to see what’s at the top of the next hill. From the wilds of north N.J., he skis for Peru Nordic. On Twitter @PeteMinde or at www.oxygenfedsport.com.