Helping Mother Nature: Snowmaking in South Lake Tahoe

Posted in Ski+Snowboard | January 9, 2014 | By Tahoe South

-- Clark Vandeventer

Which would you rather ski or ride: a foot of powder that’s dropped from the heavens or machine-made ice cream? The answer is easy. We’d all rather ski fresh powder from Mother Nature. But that choice usually isn’t ours.

And while it may sound like I’m downplaying the quality of machine made snow when I call it machine-made ice cream, don’t be mistaken. The quality of snow that comes out of these modern snow guns is actually pretty remarkable.

Right here in Tahoe South, Heavenly Mountain boasts one of the most expansive snow making systems in the world. Their snowmaking operation is rivaled by no one in Tahoe. In fact, Heavenly has more snow-making capacity than Squaw, Alpine, and NorthStar combined. On average, Heavenly makes 120 inches of snow a year, a nice compliment to the snow Mother Nature provides.

But how do you make snow?

There are three ingredients involved in making snow. The first two are exactly the same as natural snow: water and air. The third ingredient in machine-made snow is a considerable investment in snowmaking operations. 

Water and air travel through pipes and hoses and finally to snowmaking guns.  When the water that’s been traveling through the pipes hits the air that’s been traveling through the pipes, it vaporizes. Then, when it hits the cold Tahoe air, it crystalizes and forms snow.

You can’t make snow just anywhere, however. Skiing won’t be coming to San Francisco anytime soon. You need low air temperatures and low humidity -- something that we usually have plenty of during the winter at Lake Tahoe, even during dry spells.

Once you have cold temps and low humidity, you start pumping water and air through that expansive snowmaking operation. Want denser snow to establish a good base? Add more water to the mix. Want to add fluffy powder? Use less water, and more air.

Yes, I just said fluffy powder. The mixture of air and water is very heavily tilted toward air, and while it’s not the same as Mother Nature’s, it’s still fun to ski.  A lot of people will tell you that machine-made snow is hard and icy. All snow, natural or machine-made, gets hard over time -- that’s where grooming comes in. And Heavenly has a top notch fleet of groomers working hard regardless of conditions.

Wear your pajamas backwards. Wash your car. Above all, do your snow dances. You could even win a free powder ski demo rental if you can prove that you’ve got the moves. But don’t let the lack of natural snow keep you off the mountain. Hug a snowmaker and go take some turns.

Clark Vandeventer is the publisher of You can follow him on Twitter @clarkvand and read about his quest to work less, live more, and travel the world with his family at his travel and lifestyle design blog


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