Imagine this…It’s the dead of winter and it’s just after midnight. While most people are tucked in and sleeping soundly with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, you’ve just clocked in to work for a 12-hour shift. It’s brutally cold, well below freezing, and an icy wind howls through the valley, so frigid that it burns your skin and makes your hair stand up on end. You are tired, sore, hungry, thirsty, and frozen to the bone… but now you have to make your way down a mountain, through snow that seems to get deeper with every step. And all while lugging 50 pounds of equipment and gear on your back. Sound fun to you?
Believe or not, there are people that live this 12 hours a day, 4 days a week: Snowmakers! We interviewed Derrick Gartley, one of Loon’s own snowmaking foremen, to get an inside view into the world of the snowmaker, some of the most rugged and gnarly people in the ski industry.
What’s a typical work day look like?
There’s really no such thing as a typical work day. During snowmaking season or at least right now, we’re constantly charging different lines and draining different lines. We manage the flow of water around the mountain. We use both air and water to make the snow; the air is just one big manifold, so every air hydrant is charged at the same time, whereas the water we channel into different pipes depending on which trails we’re making snow on.
What time do you usually clock in?
My shift starts at noon. I show up at least 15 minutes early to go over details from the last shift. We’re making runs 24 hours a day and you’re coming in for a different shift. The foremen have to catch up to each other and get on the same page.
What are the shifts?
Noon to midnight and midnight to noon.
What’s it like out there?
This job can be a lot of fun, but it can be a lot of work at times too. A lot of hard work. You’re out there in cold, freezing temperatures, dealing with water. I mean, it can be sort of miserable at times, but it’s just about working through those situations and getting to the end of the shift. In the end, what you’ve done is really satisfying when you’ve been out there working hard. It’s a little bit of everything. It’s a fun job but it’s a very serious job and you have to pay attention. And it can work you hard, you know? There are nights where it’s exhausting, but that’s all part of the fun.
What are some of your responsibilities as a foreman?
A lot of the foreman’s job is to make sure that the water is flowing where it’s supposed to, that it’s got the proper flow so that it’s not freezing. The foreman also has to maintain the crews out there that are working. They’re doing a lot of digging out hoses and checking guns to make sure they’re up and running and operating properly. If all of the nozzles aren’t firing correctly we’ve got to figure out why. It could be a pressure issue, it could be frozen… Sometimes, just chipping ice off the guns does the trick. Every gun is different.
What kind of equipment are you working with?
There are three major types of guns. We have fan guns, which you’ll see out there. Those have their own compressors, so they only use water and create their own air pressure.
And then there are also internal and external mix guns. Most of the guns on the towers you’ll see around here are external mix. Where the water is literally shot out of the nozzle and the air is shot out just below it and interjects outside of the gun, which is external mix. Internal mixes in a chamber inside of the gun.
What kind of temperatures do you need to make the snow?
Below freezing absolutely. For a lot of the external mix guns, it really needs to be below 28 degrees. And for finer snow, stuff that’s more fluffy, it really needs to be below about 26-25 degrees to really get nice light snow. It all depends on what kind of snow you want to make too. Base snow you want to be real heavy and wet.
So it gets pretty cold out there, huh?
How do you typically deal with the cold?
It’s normally not a problem once you get moving. It is a very physical job. It’s almost like we overdress, or at least I do, because you’re down here and you’re sort of cold then you get dressed up and you get out there you’re cold. But then once you get moving around, dragging hoses and setting up guns, it’s actually the opposite. You’re warm. You’re sweating out there.
Most difficult part of the job?
The water system has to be constantly monitored to make sure it’s not freezing because if you freeze a pipe it’s a really big ordeal. It’s not easy to thaw them back out. It could take several days to thaw back out. So it’s something we try to avoid.
Favorite part of the job?
It’s being out there. Being out there at night, on the mountain. Making the snow. Seeing the snow. Being able to ski the snow the next day. It’s all fun.
I see a lot of beards. Is gnarly facial hair a job requirement?
Haha, no. But it does help!
Words by Mack Willingham