I had no idea how hard making snow was. Or if it’s even snow. For the record it is. Snow itself has many different categories (graupel anyone?) The kind Chris Nolan and Colin Oliver make is a recipe of water and compressed air pushed through a snowgun or fan gun or snow cannon – all are deployed at Platty. Easy, just add water, right? Plus temperatures below 32 F. Wrong.
The afternoon I went it was 23, but with 87% humidity, which Nolan (he, the man in charge of the mountain’s snowmaking, goes by his last name) shakes his head at. High humidity = wet snow – fine for a base, but not powder. The ultimate snowmaking temperature is 15 degrees, which is why snowmaking usually happens at night. As he explains all these things, it’s like he’s talking philosophy. We’re riding around the mountain on a snowmobile dragging guns and hoses – very heavy hoses, the sort fire departments use, some 25 feet long. He slings ‘em like a lasso towards the guns and their valves. Watching him it strikes me the job is like ranching or herding sheep.
He travels with a blowtorch and ice axe and stops more than once to pound on a fan covered in ice (another humidity issue). He tells me to duck. The ice comes off with the speed of bullets, he explains and then nonchalantly dips his head himself to avoid them. They’re inches from his face. The whole endeavor gives him and Colin the air of cowboys, that is to say, as men of few words, weathered and with grit, a strong stance and exacting standards (just ask those who work for him). Like the Marlboro Man even, Nolan travels with a cigarette between his teeth as he clangs on the fan or lights up his blowtorch to melt the ice off a gun.
The whole thing is hard enough – (and cold. He’s out in balaclava, hat, insulated everything and blown-out snowboarding boots) but picture doing this in the middle of the night, fighting frozen valves open or closed and flushing ice out of the air hoses in the dark at 2 AM – or even say 6 PM when the only light comes from the headlight on your snowmobile and a headlamp. Thinking about it, I’m struck not just by the job’s heroism but its futility as well. Ultimately it will all melt. Farming snow is Sisyphian if anything ever was.
The idea is not lost on Nolan. A couple weeks ago on a Sunday afternoon he had to go home. He’d been working two weeks of 12-hour shifts and then it rained. The base was fine. He’d made enough snow but to see the weather was disheartening particularly on his second season here. He came to work at Plattekill after growing up skiing then snowboarding here. He volunteered in the summers on the mountain bike races. Now, the terrain park – which he’s currently busy building – is named for him.
I myself will never bitch about snow again. Ever. Not after my two hours with Nolan and Colin. We all know those early season chairlift conversations the why-isn’t- more-terrain-open complaints and the it’s-been-cold-enough-to-make-snow gripes. I for one foreswear them. Forever.