For some skaters, it can be hard to wait for the first day of the new season. It is disappointing when the weather does not cooperate with the snow and cold temperatures. Your first day on the slopes can be delayed.
It’s one of the frustration levels if your first day has to be put off. But for ski resort owners and operators, the vagaries of the weather affect business decisions and the bottom line.
To improve predictability, ski resorts have long been turning to technology, adding decades of artificial snow-making capabilities that help keep things running even during low snow years and enable the season to start early with man-made snow if the weather doesn’t cooperate. But making snow is a labor-intensive and imperfect process, and it does not always result in the best quality snow. The snowmaking team runs up and down the mountain to assess the conditions, turn on the snow guns, and stop the snow guns. It is imprecise art.
Digital transformation hits the slopes
Looking to improve predictability, trail conditions, efficiency, and perhaps even open the resort earlier, Colorado’s Vail Ski Resort—the second largest single mountain operation in the U.S. at 5,300 acres, 200 runs, and 32 lifts—wanted to bring The latest technology for its operations. I started planning for a major infrastructure investment project in 2018.
“The reason for making this improvement and why creating this amazing system was the result of understanding guest demand for the early ski season and the riding experience,” says John Black, Vail’s Senior Communications Manager.
Vail’s natural snowfall averages 350 inches annually, but the number varies slightly. In 2018, the resort saw 281 inches, which was much larger than the 171 inches it got in 2016. More efficient snowmaking can make conditions more predictable. Moreover, as an extended target, if Vail can open four or even five weeks earlier, he could extend his season by 25%, which could mean a huge impact on revenue.
The investment, of course, included modern snowmobiles, each equipped with its own weather station with sensors for collecting data. But she also called for detailed GIS mapping of the resort. Phil needed to make the right decisions about where to put 421 new snowmobiles, 19 miles of ducting for air and water, and 25 adapters—the physical infrastructure for making snow. There was also a timetable. The resort wanted this new infrastructure operational before the start of the 2019 ski season.
Standardization of GIS data terms
The GIS Mapping project was also an exercise in data consolidation and management.
“The different teams on the mountain had different ways of referring to things,” Black says. “The Ski Patrol was referring to a site with their old phone numbers, like 115, which means nothing to anyone else. The snowmaking team refers to different areas based on the names of different pumps or equipment.”
Mike Kroes, who was a GIS specialist at Vail, started 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 involved talking to seniors on the resort’s crew so that he could add the existing infrastructure of piping, electrical work, and snow cannons on the mountain to the map. Then use this aggregate data and a GIS to create smart maps for employees. Snowmaking, snowmobile grooming, and the rest of the operations team all use this digital map that they can access on their powerful handheld devices while out on the mountain, Black says.
“If someone says I’m in that particular location, now everybody knows exactly where that place is, which saves them all sorts of time and training,” he says. “We have 500 acres of snowmaking in Vail, so having that kind of solution right now where everyone was speaking the same language was a big part of that improvement as well.”
In 2018, prior to the Modern Snow Maker Project, much of Vail’s snowmaking ability was concentrated near the central part of the mountain, and those trails were not ideal due to sun exposure and a lack of entry-level running.
Snow Rifles Layout Planning
“Years of weather data [were included in the smart map] We used to plan where these new weapons would be placed down to the exact location,” says Black.
“Then it was a bit of walking and studying. Where does the wind come from? What do temperatures do across a mountainous expanse? So, a combination of technology and good old mountain planning,” says Black. Bill Kennedy, the resort’s land development manager, was an integral part of the project. He has spent nearly four decades planning the resort’s moving elevators, walkways, and restaurants. For this project, he spent several days mountain hiking with Krois, and was logging 25,000 to 30,000 steps per day on his Fitbit.
The science of making snow
Efficient ice making requires precise weather conditions, and an important metric to look at is the “wet bulb temperature” or the temperature read by a thermometer covered in a water-dampened cloth. The temperature reading will be different if the cloth is dry or wet. The wet bulb temperature measurement includes data about how dry the air is, too. To make snow, the temperature and humidity must fall below certain thresholds. If it’s too warm or too humid, you’ll just end up shooting water on the mountain, creating ice, and nobody wants that. This is not a good experience for skiers. And it takes a great deal of work by the snow groomer to correct the problem.
Vail managed to open its season a week early in 2021 on November 12, due to its strategic placement of planned snowmaking equipment using a GIS map that took advantage of weather and geographic data. Black says this opening date correlates with the oldest in the resort’s history.
By mid-November 2021, the resort opened three runs, or about 85 acres, despite the fact that early 2021 was considered disappointing by ski enthusiasts in terms of snowfall. Phil had put his new Snow Rifles on the highest elevations of the resort this time around, and that’s the part of the mountain that opened up first.
Benefits of the new system
New snow guns are automated and can be turned off based on ideal weather conditions for making snow. This is a big change.
“The old way of making snow is to have snowmakers run up and down the hill and turn on the tubes when the temperatures are in the right place and then run down the hill, then back again to turn them off,” Black says. This saves a lot of steps for ice makers. But the new system not only saves on this work.
“If there are people running up and down the mountain and turning things on and off, you might miss the weather window as the daytime temperatures rise,” Black says. “Our snowmakers are racing against time, and if they’re slow, they end up putting water on the surface of the ice.”
Snow Rifles and associated infrastructure are also monitored and controlled at a physical location called “Snow Central” – a large control room that gives the team a view of the mountain, conditions, and snowmaking capabilities.
The new system — a dual digital smart GIS map and automatic snow pistols — made the first day of skiing arrive a week earlier at Vail this year.
“First and foremost, it’s about providing that guest experience and meeting guest demand for early-season skiing and riding,” Black says.
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