2018-02-14 / Front Page

Snowmakers reign over holiday weekend

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Awesome recovery after tough weather
Joan Lawrence-Bauer

They go to work when everyone else is sitting down to dinner.  And for 12 straight hours, they brave the dark of night, the harshest winds and the coldest conceivable temperatures to cover dozens of ski trails with practically perfect snow.  As the President’s holiday weekend and week approach, thousands and thousands of skiers will enjoy those slopes, never knowing that a week of rain and warm weather could have ruined their vacations were it not for the region’s “powdermakers.”

Snowmakers keep local ski resorts open between Thanksgiving and Easter, creating employment not just for their colleagues at the slopes, but for people who work in restaurants, shops, hotels and inns and countless other local businesses that rely on winter visitors.  At Belleayre Mountain, there are just 10 of them, at Plattekill, even fewer and without the work they do to keep snow on their respective mountains, thousands of locals would be unemployed each winter and hundreds of thousands of visitors might go elsewhere. 

Snowmakers are a tough breed.  They tend to be either seasoned veterans, who have learned how to cope with temperature and wind-chill factors that go as low 78 degrees below zero, or rookies who thought it might be a cool job but had no idea what they were in for. The veterans take pride in what they do.  Dennis Fickeria, head of snowmaking at Belleayre has been at it for decades, as has his counter part, Ken “Macker” Davie at Plattekill who was not available for an interview at press time..  Fickeria rarely gets out on the mountain these days but oversees an operation that boasts more than 300 snow guns that can pump out four different consistencies of snow (base snow, quality snow, powder or packed powder) on most of Belleayre’s 50 trails.

Fickeria is clearly proud of his operation, which has seen major investments from the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) since it took over the ski center’s operation four years ago.  Making snow requires air and water, in great quantities, pumped out with either electricity or diesel fuel.  “Our pumping capacity has been upgraded” says Fickeria.  “We now have 10 diesel compressors and a new electric compressor that allow us to pump more than 19,000 cfm.”  He also notes that most guns have been converted from high energy use to low, making operations more efficient and saving thousands in fuel costs each year. 

Snowmaking, which is an incredible combination of art and science, requires pump operators, who spend their shift watching gauges, charts, graphs and other technical readouts, and powder-makers, who get out on the mountain and make the critical equipment shifts and product quality assessments that guarantee the type of snow going down is the right type, and that it is going down where it belongs. 

“There are a lot of variables,” says Jake Fronckowiak before heading out on the mountain Monday night.  “We have to consider the temperature outside, the water temperature, the humidity, the wind and the existing conditions already on the mountain.”  Within those five different variables, the number of combinations of factors can be overwhelming.  That’s where the art takes over the science and experience in the discipline counts. 

Fronckowiak, who has been on the job for seven years, says early in the year when laying down base, he’s looking for a wetter consistency and can make snow in warmer temperatures.  “We need it colder for powder,” he says.  Recovery mode is where snowmakers were this week, so operations required putting down snow that could recover base and cover bare spots or ice, then the powder, the icing on the cake.

Out on the mountain six or seven times a night, for 60 to 90 minutes at a time, Fronckowiak and his colleagues check the product, adjust the equipment,  look at where the snow is landing and think about what skiers will be finding when they arrive.  They get around in the dark on snowmobiles or ATV’s, or they ride the lift and look down to get a different perspective.  But often, they’re hiking, something powder-makers view a job benefit, not a chore.

“You can’t bring machines down over the headwall,” says Fronckowiak.  “It’s just too steep.  So we get a ride up and then we walk  down.”  He’s clearly in his element now.  “Coming off the headwall, at night, when I’m powdering a trail; it’s amazing.  Seeing the sunset, the moon, the sunrise from this perspective is magical.” 

Nick Horvath, a rookie at the discipline. echoes many of Fronckowiak’s comments when asked about the best part of a really hard job.  “It’s a great sense of adventure and a lot of responsibility,” he says.  “I love the night hike aspects, but it can be stressful.”  Both say ever-changing schedules that are determined almost exclusively by prevailing weather conditions can be difficult. 

With a reputation among skiers of being among the best and quickest at recovery from bad weather, and a return to great single digit snowmaking temperatures on Monday night, Belleayre Mt. is expected to offer some of the best conditions of the year when the holiday week kicks off on Friday.  And that, more than any other perk, is what motivates the snowmaking crew at a ski center that was builtbfore snowmaking was even invented.

Fronckowiak says the story of his snowmaking team  is the story of a passion for making people smile and sums up the ultimate satisfaction of the job when he describes the response of Belleayre Mt. skiers.  “The feedback from skiers keeps us going,” says Fronckowiak.  “After I powder a top and the skiing is awesome, we get Facebook messages or comments from the day crew about how skiers were raving about the good conditions.”  Fronckowiak says the most frequent skiers are so discerning that they sometimes know just which snowmaker made their powder.  “My buddy Bobcat, from ski patrol talks about when they are skiing through powder and they say ‘Jake did it again,’ and the give a big ‘woohoo!’  That kinda stuff just makes it all worth it.”



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