Up Close: Brian Rotherforth

Up Close & Personal

Let There Be Snow


Surrounded by snow in sub-freezing temperatures outside the lodge at Montage Mountain, it’s easy to forget that the summer’s Lazy River attraction is buried nearly eight feet below. With only a few inches of natural snow on the ground outside the boundaries of the ski area, it’s a testament to the snowmaking staff that it’s so easy to take all the snow for granted. If you camped on the mountain for Peach Festival and hit the slopes, you’ve skied or boarded in the air over your tent. Brian Rotherforth, director of snowmaking, has been making snow for 15 years, ensuring locals and visitors have plenty of white terrain to enjoy in the winter, even when the weather conditions are less than ideal. Without man-made snow, skiing in this area would be sketchy at best, so those of us who enjoy hitting the slopes owe a debt of gratitude to the intrepid people who do what Mother Nature can’t. Snowmaking at Montage Mountain seems deceptively simple: pipe water from a reservoir at the bottom of the mountain through a main pipeline about a mile long, distribute it through another couple miles of pipes and hoses and point a snow gun. The ‘artificial’ snow is just water and air (no chemicals), but it’s a process that seems easier than it should be and is harder in practice than it sounds. Brian cleared up some misconceptions and gave us some fun facts.

How long have you been making snow?
I’ve been doing this for 15 years. I love to ski, and was looking for a job. I was like, “Hey, free skiing, I don’t mind snow, I don’t mind the cold.” I don’t really ski anymore — I do, but not as much. When I get a day off, this is the last place I want to be sometimes, you know? But you get a lot of gratification out of the job. You start with nothing, and then a week or two later the mountain is open and you have people enjoying it.

What does it take to get things running each year?
You’ve seen the mountain in the summer — it’s all grass — so we’ll start off in early November if temperatures start to get low enough. We have a pump house that pumps 6,000 gallons per minute of water a mile up the mountain. To the top, we’re pumping about 4,000 gallons a minute. We’ll start with a base of wetter, heavier snow, but in general if it’s white, it’s good; that’s what we shoot for at that point in the season. Anything we can get on the ground to get us open is good. From there, we focus on a few main trails. We try to get a few beginner, intermediate and expert  slopes covered. We try to cater to everyone to open the mountain. Then we focus on other things like our tubing, because anybody can go snow tubing. Our goal is to be 100 percent open for Christmas. It doesn’t always happen — Mother Nature doesn’t always work with you — but once we get trails open and it starts to get colder, we can make more snow. Twenty-eight degrees is our starting temperature where we can make snow; you’re not making a lot of snow at that point, but when the temperature drops you can add more water to each gun, which creates more snow.

So all the snow guns are connected? How does it work?
The main line runs up the mountain, a mile bottom to top. Every trail has its own line — it’s about seven miles of pipeline that disperses water to each of our trails. Each gun runs on 480 volts of electricity, and we feed in high-pressure water. At the pump house we’re pumping 750 psi, but by the time it travels, you’re at about 350-400 psi at the gun. They use high pressure air from onboard air compressors, and the water and air flow through small nozzles. You put your high pressure water to your gun and the air breaks those particles up so small, and pushes them up in the air. Then a fan blows it all out, and it breaks the particles up more, and your air and water mixture, and that’s pretty much what makes snow. The water isn’t chilled; we pump out of a reservoir at the bottom of the mountain which is spring-fed, so it’s pretty cold to start with. When we start in November, our water is around 40-45 degrees. Right now if we were to make snow, our water is right around 32 degrees. It cools pretty quickly. We don’t use any chemicals — everybody asks ‘what are you adding to your snow?’ There’s nothing, it’s just high-pressure, cold water that freezes when it hits the air. You go outside these days when it’s below zero and spray your hose — you’re going to make snow.

Is it easier when it’s colder like it’s been lately?
It’s easier, but it’s harder on the guys working. You’re working against the elements. You’ve got running water in below-zero temperatures, so things freeze, things break. It makes it a lot harder when it’s colder, but you do make a lot more snow. You have to watch for things freezing up and make sure you have good flow through everything, and it gets a little dicey.
We usually run two shifts of about eight to nine workers per shift. I have to give the credit to all my guys: they’re the ones who are out there doing it all. I’m out there with them, but they do the bulk of the work. They’re the ones dragging the hoses, digging the hoses out, setting everything up. The credit definitely goes to them. They’re out there all night, and two weeks ago it was 12 below zero. The actual temperature with 20 mph winds… I don’t know what that adds up to for a wind chill, but it’s cold. You’ll have guys call over the radio asking what the temperature is, and when it’s that cold, you just say ‘it’s cold enough.’

What is the equipment like?
We have three different styles of snow guns, they’re all made by SMI Snow Makers out of Michigan. We have 50 of their Super PoleCat, which is their biggest gun. We have around 80 of the Standard PoleCat, and then we have about 35 of their Viking gun. They all make a little different quality of snow, but basically they all do the same job, which is getting the trails open and maintaining trails once they’re open. All the Super PoleCats are on our north face, our steeper terrain where you want more powder and where you want to keep your conditions top-notch. The bigger guns put out more water and more snow. The Standard PoleCats are basically the same, with less water flow, but they still put out a ton of snow. You can see that 30 foot pile of snow there from one gun right outside the lodge. We try not to make big piles, because once we have the trails open, the groomers come along and they push the snow around where it needs to be. We try to keep it in the middle, but the wind doesn’t always cooperate with you. Every gun has an oscillator, so the barrel will rotate back and forth 270 degrees, so that helps. You can also make a little pile, move the gun, and spread it out a little at a time. Right outside the lodge, we just cover our whole water park. You’re on like eight feet of snow on top of the Lazy River. There’s a lot of snow here — a real lot of snow.

How does natural snow factor in?
We’ve had around 20-30 inches of natural snowfall. It does help us, but when you get three or four inches of snow at a ski resort, it doesn’t really do much. It gets skied off, and when the groomers go over and run their tiller over it, it might be 1/4 inch. But when you get natural snow down in the valley, people look out their doors and say ‘hey, it snowed out, let’s go to Montage and ski!’ So it gets the people in the mood, so it definitely helps.

Natural precipitation affects the water supply, though?
We were a little low early in the season – it was a really dry fall. We watch the weather constantly, I’m on my phone every 20 minutes looking at weather to see what it’s doing out. We also have weather stations around the mountain that I can monitor from my office. But it was so dry in the fall, we got pretty low on our reservoir — you keep your eye on that. At that point, you say ‘OK, the mountain is 100 percent open, let’s shut down (snowmaking) for a couple of days, we’re covered.’ The weather affects things a lot. In December, we had pretty much the whole mountain covered. Then it rained and shot up to 60 degrees for four days, so that’s when the snowmakers come back in and work their magic. We have the capability to do it, and we did a pretty good job with it. You get the mountain back in a day or two, temperature permitting.

What happens once the mountain is open?
We keep it up. We have tower guns on every single trail now. There are spots where we have mobile carriage guns that we move around where we need. You’ve got to make connections, you always need snow at the bottom and top of the lift. So we move those around as we need to. We’re able to move right across the mountain and make snow as we go. There will be trails where we focus, like up here on Mainline — we can make snow over on Highball. Not as much, but there’s enough to put down. Then once that’s open, you can move the water somewhere else. We try to get a top-to-bottom open to start, then cater to everyone: beginner, intermediate, expert right at the beginning of the season. A lot of places can’t do that. The setup of our mountain allows us to open up all different terrain so everyone can enjoy it.
A lot of places claim ‘first to open, last to close,’ but we were 100 percent before anybody else this season. A lot of people were still trying to get to 100 percent two or three weeks ago. We have terrain parks already built – we had two terrain parks built already running early January. All of our north face was open.

How do you build terrain parks and maintain trails?
I’ll work with the terrain park director, and we’ll go out there and he’ll say, ‘I want a jump here, a jump there,’ and I know where I need put piles of snow. But you also have to get the trail open, so sometimes we’ll just open the trail first then go back and do specific areas and blow bigger piles of snow for that.
When you look at the line of trees and see ones that are all white, that’s where the guns are. When you don’t get the right wind, it goes all over. You get it on the trail, but it’s more work for the groomers. They have to move it around more. Snowmaking and grooming are basically like one department, we’ve got to work together. I’ve got to make it and they’ve got to put it in the right places.
— tucker hottes