PURGATORY – For about three weeks, snow guns have been blowing powder across the runs at Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort building a base to last into spring.
About 16 inches of natural snow fell during the weekend, giving the resort a major boost, and this Friday, the ski area may receive more.
But the crew of 21 snowmakers at the ski area aren’t waiting on Mother Nature.
Tuesday night, a crew of five people turned about 1.1 million gallons of water into snow, said Dylan Dreher, a snowmaker.
“This is what gets this place open by the 28th of November,” Dreher said.
Demon, a well-traveled run near the base of the mountain, can take 17 million gallons of water to cover with snow. DMR has its own reservoir to provide the water for the resort’s needs.
DMR is not alone. Snowmaking is a staple for Telluride and Chapman Hill as well as ski resorts across the country. But while humans can make snow, it requires cold weather. Unseasonably warm weather in November can set ski resorts back. A few days with highs in the 50s earlier this month hurt DMR, but now, it is back on track.
Dreher was one of the five working from midnight to noon Tuesday, running about 40 snow machines, including 11 new energy-efficient snowmaking guns.
They start the season in pickup trucks, but they came down the mountain before dawn on snowmobiles.
The mercury read about 14 degrees, and driving into blowing snow, they admitted it was cold.
“My eyeballs are frozen,” said Taylor Altman, a snowmaker, icicles hanging from his beard.
Crew members spent the first six hours of their shift running guns and working to prevent hoses from freezing during the coldest hours.
Dreher, now in his second year, loves working at 3 a.m. under the stars in a winter wonderland.
“I mean, look at my office view,” he said, as the sun started to rise over the mountains.
During their shift, the crews make adjustments to the water flows. The colder it is, the more snow they can make.
As the weather warms, snow quality can start to degrade, and a telltale sign is a rainbow that can shine through, even by the light of the moon, Dreher said.
This week, snowmakers are preparing runs off Lift 4 for opening day. It’s likely they will continuing working through the end of December. In total, the resort can cover 250 acres of the mountain with machine-made snow.
Snowmaking began at DMR in 1982, and snowmaking foreman Waylan Hayes said the number of machines has doubled since the 1990s.
Chapman Hill is far more reliant on snowmaking than DMR. This year, Matthew Morrissey, the recreation supervisor for the area, is hopeful crews will be able to open the ski hill near Christmas break.
But he is waiting for five to seven days with temperatures well below 20 degrees to start running the machines. Without the machines, the in-town ski hill would not have been able to open for the last two seasons.
“It is pretty much the staple of what we do now,” he said.
Once temperatures drop, the resort uses 30,000 gallons of water in a night to run its two fan guns.
If natural snow falls, a mix with machine-made snow makes it more durable and helps serve heavy use.
Telluride Ski Resort also invested heavily in snowmaking. This year, the resort added 38 new high-efficiency snow guns and a new water line.
The new snow guns will serve the most high-traffic areas near Village Express and the Polar Queen Express.
While ski resorts have to invest in snowmaking equipment to extend the season, even the professionals admit nothing beats a good storm.
“You can’t beat a fresh powder day,” Dreher said.