Up All Night For Good Snow

Moving water from the river to the mountaintops, walking miles of ski trails, and shooting streaming ribbons and clouds of white is all in a night’s work—slopeside with the snowmakers

It’s four in the morning, the temperature is about four degrees, and Sunday River’s Will Bastian says we’re lucky—about the wind, that is. It’s barely blowing up here.

The freezing air and frosty tree branches are almost still here on Jordan Bowl (elevation 3,090 feet) at the western end of the eight-peak resort. The sky is a clear stretch of blackness with a sliver of the moon shining among the distant stars, and the only sound is a chairlift still churning through its circuitous route. We just hopped off one of those chairs on the otherwise empty lift, then trudged through ankle-to-knee-deep snow to the head of Eureka, a black-diamond trail on Oz.

We’re meeting up with a two-person team from the overnight snowmaking crew who are working in the distant reaches of the resort. They’ve been up here since dinnertime, and the pair still have a couple of hours to go before the 7 a.m. shift change. It’s late in the snowmaking season, a mid-February night, but they’re still making snow at Sunday River—just as they have been whenever conditions have been right since October.

Meet the snowmakers

Most of them are men. Many sport beards. And, once they’ve donned their layers of jackets and safety gear and are carrying hoses and equipment, they resemble firefighters. These are the snowmakers.

When the resort has a full team going full speed, it employs about 22 mountain-romping snowmakers to work daytime or over-night shifts on the hill, plus additional control room operators. This is according to Bastian, the snowmaking operations manager, whose own winter beard is long enough to reach past his jacket collar. He’s not interested warm climes. “I don’t drink hot coffee or get in saunas,” Bastian says. “I live for cold weather.”

On this night, the forecast is for hours of the subfreezing temperatures that are essential for snowmaking. The process involves water and pressurized air blown together over targeted sections of the ski trails, eventually blanketing entire runs. That’s when the grooming machines come in, before trails open. The massive effort provides skiers and snowboarders the down- hill conditions they crave.

Tonight’s mission to make snow on Eureka trail is the result of the “snow plan” meeting, a daily morning gathering of the crew to review weather forecasts, maps, and trail-condition reports from the ski patrol, grooming crew, and snowmakers. By midday, decisions have been made, and everyone knows the priorities and the trails they’ll be working.

Tonight one team will focus on the long, steep double-diamond White Heat, a legendary run on White Cap mountain (elevation 2,425 feet) at the other end of the 135-trail resort. While White Heat has been groomed and open for skiing for much of the season, Eureka has received only natural snowfall this year, and it’s one of the few trails that hasn’t been skied yet during the season. Grass and granite still show in the snow-bare stretches. Eureka is also one of the farthest trails from the primary source of water, the Sunday River. To join the guys who are up on Eureka, photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I borrow a pair of ice grippers— studded rubber contraptions that stretch across the bottom of boots to add traction. Bastian and the crew wear them, too, for stability and safety in their miles of slope walking.

First we see the light of two headlamps shining. Then we see the snowmakers. Craig Richards, from Rumford, is a brawny guy who always seems to be smiling. He’s been a snowmaker for about eight years. The other, Bryce Barnes, came to Maine from New Orleans and lives in Newry. During his four years as a snowmaker, Barnes says, he’s been paying close attention to the seasons. “Watching the trails go from leafy vegetation to bare ground, and then to see it all come together with snow and ski runs—that’s pretty mind blowing.”

They’re working a “gun run.” Starting at the top, they bound confidently downward, sometimes sliding briefly but keeping control. They stop every few dozen yards to attach hoses and position snow guns on metal stands—the hoses bring the pressurized air and water that will blast through the seven small holes in the metal nozzles.

Each of the gun nozzles looks like a cross between a Star Trek space-ship and a showerhead. At one point, a nozzle appears to be frozen, so the two check all the connections and give the snow gun a few clanking whacks with a hammer. Soon it’s blowing again. Richards and Barnes observe for a minute, then move on, manually installing, adjusting, and moving the guns along the length of Eureka through the night.

River, Mountain, River

When air and water are propelled from a snow gun, the resulting snow doesn’t float down as snowflakes, Bastian explains. “Snowmaking snow is more dense than flakes as it falls, and it melts more slowly.”

At Sunday River, the water portion of the snowmaking is essentially a circular system. Water from the river flows through a miles-long network of pumps, holding ponds, valves, and hoses to be mixed with pressurized air and freezing temperatures to become the snow on the ski slopes and glades in winter. When the snow melts each springtime, water is returned to the Sunday River watershed. I want to see the source, so we make our way to the river and the pump houses nearby. Near the intake, the river is rushing below a rock that rises out of the water like a miniature mountain. Capped with snow, it looks like a replica of one of the ski peaks. Yards away, a holding pond is iced over and snowy; it’s the same pond where stand-up paddleboard lessons are offered in summertime.

An estimated 400 million gallons of water are transported from here to the mountain each year—enough to fill about 600 Olympic-size swimming pools—and one of the masterminds who helps accomplish that feat is control room operator Keith Farrington of Andover, who came to work at the resort more than seven years ago after retiring from a technical and telecommunications career with the U.S. Coast Guard. We find him at a desk in a windowless room in the pump house near Barker Lodge, monitoring water pressure and manually opening and closing valves to direct the water and air precisely where it’s needed on the trails. (To reach Eureka at the proper pressure, he explains, the water takes hours to travel some five miles through the irrigation network.)

Farrington can roll his office chair to reach everything he needs to monitor and direct the resort’s snowmaking resources, including an array of dials, meters, levers, and buttons that looks like it belongs at NASA. His work involves using elevated math equations to determine speed, pressure, and timing. At first, I think I’m looking at a trail map, but the map posted in Farrington’s office shows the irrigation lines and connections across the resort’s peaks. “The amount of water involved is staggering,” he says, as he watches the current readings on a computer screen. “And it’s moving at 6,000 gallons a minute.”

If the water or compressed air doesn’t get to the valves on the trails on time because of a pressure drop, power outage, or some other reason, the snowmaking teams will radio the control room. Farrington says his aim is to supply the water and air as it’s needed, without hiccups or delays. “The better you do your job down here,” he says, “the less that people will notice you. And that’s a good thing.”

In the same building as the control room and the large, snaking pumps, the snowmakers gather before and after each shift in another windowless room, this one with chairs and tables—some strewn with coats, goggles, and hats. They talk of wildlife they’ve seen up on the mountain trails—including red squirrels darting across the snow, moose, and foxes, plus marten tracks—and when they mention the “incident with the attacking ravens,” I’m not sure if they’re kidding. There’s plenty of camaraderie built up between these colleagues, who work together in extreme conditions at all hours, and teasing each other looks to be an ongoing pastime—sometimes it’s ribbing about sports teams, sometimes about which of the crew should be deemed “Snowmaker of the Year.”

The guys are kicking back, sitting down together for a few minutes before their shift begins. One of the snowmakers, Zach Louison, says he is from Boston and that he first came to Sunday River with his family when he was about two years old. These days he lives nearby, and he doesn’t mind getting “coated in a shell of snow” when he’s working with the snow guns. “It’s cool watching conditions and getting to decide where the snow goes,” Louison says, before gearing up for his shift. “It’s the satisfaction of doing a hard job well and seeing how stoked the people are, especially early in the season. Plus, the lifestyle and view never get old.”

Danny Francis, a snowmaker who lives in Oxford, figures he walks about eight miles on the mountainside during every shift. And Nate Shedd, who lives in Stoneham, says, “There’s no easy way to do what we do. I’d never given snow guns a second thought, but the physical work is real. We’re artists working with a million gallons of paint.”

Dawn Patrol

Morning light is beginning to brighten the sky and slopes, and the overnight snowmaking shift will soon end. We’re leaving by snowmobile. The grooming crew in their hulking machines are still out traversing the mountainside, headlights beaming. I take in the view again. No skiers are out yet, of course. It’s a stellar panoramic of white trails and tree lines cascading down to the lights of the valley, just as most people are waking up. While I look down, Bastian glances back once more toward Eureka and the guns and the snow billowing through the air. They’ll keep the guns going for as long as possible through the day, he tells me.

In a few hours, skiers and snowboarders will fill the trails. I wonder if they’ll think much about the effort that went into the snowy surface that they glide down. After this glimpse of snowmaking at Sunday River, I’m sure I always will. As we zoom along a ridge during our descent, a broader vista opens up, and the rising sun beams orange light across our faces and into the trees. It’s an incredibly personal and beautiful view these mountain walkers get—up all night for good snow.