Wet Weather and Snowmaking

Believe it or not, there are actually some people in the Bow Valley who are happy with the abundance of wet weather we’ve had since the spring, and especially recently with numerous snowfalls and days of heavy rain. If you happen to find one of these happy people, it’s likely they are involved with snowmaking.

I talked a bit last year about what it takes to make snow at a large resort like Lake Louise, above and beyond the equipment and staff that do the actual work. Basically, three conditions must be met in order for Lake Louise to make snow each winter. The first condition, one that generally does not change from year to year,  is that we must be past midnight of October 14 in order to begin. Second, water levels in the Pipestone River must be at least 90% of the thirty-year average for that date. And third, temperatures must be low enough so that the forming of snow crystals is possible.

As far as the permit goes, it is a fairly straight-forward process. We can apply well in advance, and since the terms remain generally unchanged from year to year, we can have it in place so we’re ready to go when the big day arrives. How that process goes is fully in our hands, but the same cannot be said for the other two conditions that must be met. The water level in the Pipestone River, which runs just west of the ski area and joins the Bow River in the village of Lake Louise, is a function of weather. More specifically, the flow level is a result of the previous winter’s snowfall, how fast or slow that snow melts, and how wet the weather has been during the summer and into autumn. While we can’t control any of those variables, we can predict with a fair level of accuracy what sort of situation we’ll be faced with looking ahead, thanks to previous year’s records and our knowledge of water flow and snow melting in our area.

Also out of our control, and less predictable than water flow, is the weather itself. Without freezing temperatures, we can’t make snow. And, while local weather forecasts can paint a picture of what’s to come, they tend to be generalizations that apply to a large area. On our mountain, the freezing level (altitude at which water freezes) can vary wildly over the course of only a few hours. Snowmaking staff must keep a close eye on temperatures and how they change in order to make the best use of a large number of snow guns deployed across a wide range of elevations. As is typical early in the season, temperatures cold enough to produce snow occur mostly at night, so it isn’t unusual to have all guns firing for a few hours at night then have them sit idle during the warmer days. As we get further into winter, freezing temperatures usually prevail twenty-four hours a day, and as long as river water levels remain high, we can fire on all cylinders straight through the day and night. As for this year’s water levels, all the wet and snowy weather of late have produced well-above-average flow in the Pipestone River, hence the happy snowmakers.

October at Lake Louise sees most staff take the month off, with the exception of Mountain Operations and Lift & Vehicle Maintenance. The sixty or so snowmaking staff that will begin their training on October 12 marks the first arrival of winter staff, and staff numbers will continue to increase until we reach our peak around Christmas. Even in early October, the excitement surrounding the upcoming winter season is palpable as people begin to dig out and dust off their winter clothing and ski equipment, ready to hit the slopes at the first sign of snow.

*****

In addition to the usual pre-season preparation, there are a few other summer projects that will be wrapping up soon at Lake Louise. The first is the replacement of a section of snowmaking pipeline that runs underground between the bottom of Men’s Downhill and the top of Easy St. This section was old, and breaks in the pipe were becoming more frequent. One occurred just days before the start of the World Cup races last November, resulting in a torrent of water that washed away a large section of the course, and much of the dirt underneath. Luckily the course was repaired in time for the races to start, and that section of pipeline was closed for the remainder of the season. This doesn’t mean that we lose the ability to make snow in this area. We just need to approach from a different direction, using longer hose set-ups and snow cats to move the snow into the places we wanted it.

This project, as far as pipeline replacement goes, is a smaller one, and is only expected to be a few weeks in duration. Like all projects that take place at Lake Louise, this one was subject to an approval process that involved detailed environmental assessments and best management practices in order to return the disturbed area to the state it was in before the project started. For example, the top organic layer of ground (typically 15cm deep, but variable) gets stripped carefully from the surface and is kept separate from the other material that gets excavated from the pipeline ditch. This layer is kept as intact as possible so that when the hole is back-filled it can be placed back on top with the greatest chance of returning to its pre-project state as quickly as it can.

Pipe gets laid out along Juniper in preparation for replacement.

Also nearing completion is the construction of the new hut at the top of Paradise chair. This building replaces the older on that stood there previously, and will be located a few more metres down the lift line. The new building will provide better sight lines for the lift operator, and more room for patrollers who are stationed there during operating hours. Building Maintenance staff ride Paradise chair every morning to get to the work site, and any materials or tools required on site get there the same way. The building itself was brought up in larger loads by snow cat once we had closed for winter last May. Even with little growing up there, this project was also bound by Parks Canada requirements and subject to both Parks and public approval processes. The photo below was taken from the trail to Skoki Lodge – look carefully and you’ll see the carpenters working on the roof (click on photo for larger version):

New hut under construction at the top of Paradise chair.

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