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Fan Gun 101: Mount Snow, VT

Fan Gun 101: Mount Snow, VT

Can a little Midwestern know-how bring new life to an Eastern icon? Vermont’s Mount Snow gives visitors 351 reasons to believe.
By Allen St. John, Contributor, SKI Magazine
posted: 12/01/2008
Early-season snowmaking means late-season smiles. Read more.

“I’m skiing in my pajamas,” Emma tells me proudly as we ride Mount Snow’s Summit Express quad. And while, like most 8-year-olds, my daughter is sometimes prone to exaggeration, on this balmy May morning at Mount Snow, she’s telling the whole truth and nothing but. See more photos from Mount Snow.

It’s the penultimate weekend of an epic snow season, and on a warm day when much of the Northeast has retreated to the golf course, ski clothes are strictly optional. So, along with her bib ski pants, Emma’s proudly sporting the pink and blue pajama top she packed for bedtime. Her brother, Ethan, 11, is also exploring the joys of full-on spring skiing, wearing a black T-shirt with a stylized skull on it, arcing GS turns in the corn snow and wondering if he should have brought his Nintendo DS for the glove-free chair rides.

“This is awesome,” he enthuses.

And it is. The Sunday morning snow is as soft and silky as lemon sorbet, and the whole day has been like that. No need to set the alarm for first tracks—early birds found only re-frozen coral as their reward for catching first chair. Late spring invites you to sleep in, eat a leisurely breakfast, watch a little Hannah Montana and let the sunshine perform its magic on the crusty snow.

And despite the fact that we’re much closer to the summer solstice than the winter one, there’s still plenty of snow at Mount Snow. Except for a few expert trails, the whole mountain is open and ours for the exploring.

“Let’s do Deer Run,” says Emma, hoping against hope that we might find Bambi standing in the middle of the trail. No luck. What’s more, we quickly discover that, at least for a 50-pound girl, the pull of gravity isn’t enough to overcome the high coefficient of friction, and on the flats, the slightly sloppy, wet snow stops her dead.

Next run, it’s Ethan’s turn to misread the trail map—wishing an L in front of Ego Alley and hoping that the trail was inspired in some way by the tiny Danish building blocks. This is a better choice—firmer snow, steeper pitch, not another skier in sight. We go on to pick off the adjacent cruisers one by one, pushing the snow around, my wife, Sally, leading our little pack. I don’t need to look down at my T-shirt—the one with the dog riding a snowboard—to know that Life is Good.

But like most good things, the groundwork for this idyllic spring day was laid long ago. Six months ago, to be exact. On November 10, 2007, Mount Snow was the first Eastern resort to open top to bottom.

Top to bottom. It’s that last phrase that’s the key here. Rewind for a moment to the bygone days of the 1990s, when skis were long and skinny, snowboarders seemed like the enemy, and Milli Vanilli passed for music. The first rites of winter were performed sometime in early October, when Sunday River, Maine, and Killington, Vt., would compete for the bragging rights of being the first ski area in the nation to open. But in those days “open” constituted running one lift and keeping a ski’s width of brown ice frozen for long enough to get to the bottom of said lift. Do that first and a certain moral victory was yours.

That competition is over—the plug pulled after Les Otten’s American Skiing Co. bought Killington and realized how much this publicity stunt was costing—but the social pressure that caused it has only intensified. In a world where Halloween decorations reach the shelves in August, skiers want to make turns in mid-November, regardless of whether or not Mother Nature is cooperating.

“Everybody’s enthusiastic early on,” says Tim Boyd, president of Peak Resorts, which purchased Mount Snow in April of 2007.

That’s why the resort’s new owner made a bold statement, pushing for the earliest opening since 1998. But this was early opening with a twist: a skiing experience instead of a marketing stunt. Last year, on Day One, Mount Snow featured top to bottom—and often edge to edge—skiing. An intermediate could happily slide from summit to base without fear of ski damage, extended portages over mud patches or being downloaded like the latest Feist single. “We don’t think of it in terms of trails, but skiable acres,” explains Boyd.

So how did this happen? This is where it becomes a technology story. In the fall of 2007, within months of its sale to Peak Resorts, Mount Snow installed 101 fan guns. It installed another 150 this summer, giving it more of the state-of-the-art guns than any resort in North America.

What’s a fan gun? Good question. It’s basically a conventional snowmaking gun on steroids. Older guns use water pressure and condensed air from a compressor to make snow. A fan gun employs a smaller electric-powered onboard air compressor coupled with a high speed fan and something called a nucleator to inject more air into the mix. The result: more and better snow over a wider area, and in a wider range of conditions.

“The snow has more hang time,” says Boyd. And that hang time gives it a few more precious seconds to form fluffy crystals instead of the blunt, rounded man-made pellets that tend to flatten out into hardpack. The resulting snow is softer and drier, and it needs far less time to cure (freshly made snow usually needs to sit for several days while excess water drains off) before it can be groomed. The fan guns also project the snow much farther, which helps with that edge-to-edge spread.

There’s a green theme here as well. The 16 diesel generators that powered the area’s air and water guns are gone, along with the 200,000 gallons of fuel that they burned every season, replaced by cleaner and more efficient electrical power for the fan guns.

Why doesn’t every area use fan guns? For the same reason we don’t all wear Pateks and drive Maybachs: money. Fan guns are expensive—as much as $30,000 each installed—and that’s why most New England resorts still use more conventional guns as their primary snowmaking tools, with just a few fan guns to fill in.

But as a member of the Peak Resorts family, Mount Snow has benefited from a case of trickle up. Boyd’s other resorts, which include Boston Mills/Brandywine located south of Cleveland, Hidden Valley near St. Louis and Paoli Peaks north of Louisville, Ky., are generally small, busy and located on the edge of the snowbelt. Sometimes the window of appropriate snowmaking conditions at these areas can be measured not in weeks or days, but in hours. At those times, fan guns, which pay for themselves in these marginal temperatures, can mean the difference between snow and no snow, between skiing and no skiing.

No, Mount Snow doesn’t usually face these borderline conditions. But even in midwinter, southern Vermont is still subject to rainy spells and freeze/thaw cycles. And when that happens, the same state-of-the-art snowmaking system that laid the mountain’s formidable base can be used to rejuvenate it. “Recoveries that used to take a week or 10 days can now be pulled off in a matter of hours,” explains Boyd.

What does this all mean to the skier? Mount Snow has quietly declared war on summer. Skiing in November? Skiing in May? That leaves just five short months for shanking golf balls and weeding the garden.

But as the thermometer creeps toward 75 and beyond on this magical May day, summer seems to have the upper hand. There’s still plenty of snow, but four little legs that have pushed around tons of it today are melting fast. One more run and it’ll be time to unbuckle our boots for the last time this year and chow down on burgers al fresco. But even as we splash in the outdoor pool at the Grand Summit Hotel, the still-white slopes and a few hearty snow sliders remind us that winter is still hanging on, and that when it does let go, it won’t be gone for long. And what else would you expect at a place called Mount Snow?

SKI FREE OR…
The other big news at Mount Snow this season is another example of cross-pollination with Peak Resorts’ sister properties. This year, Mount Snow’s Carinthia area will be converted into a dedicated, top-to-bottom freestyle area, similar in concept to one at Big Boulder, Pa.

“Terrain parks are the great equalizers,” explains Boyd, who has seen how the addition of a couple of jumps and halfpipes has transformed his Midwestern molehills. Kids who would rather do their homework than have to ski the same cruiser twice will happily hike for the same jump 30 times in a row. And more and more of those kids, he says, are riding twin-tip skis instead of snowboards.

Carinthia, once a small independent ski area long since assimilated by Mount Snow, will now feature 125 freestyle features scattered around 12 full terrain parks, including an 18-foot superpipe, a smaller pipe, a big-air kicker and an all-natural park that eschews rails in favor of all-snow hits. The Inferno Park, which was featured in the X Games, will make its return to Carinthia, while the tubing park will be relocated to Mixing Bowl on Mount Snow proper. At the same time, the Carinthia lodge will get a face-lift with an eye toward giving parents a place to chill while their kids perfect that switch 180. Among the new features are an extended outdoor deck, counter seating near the windows, free wireless Internet, flatscreen televisions and outdoor fire pits.

SIGNPOST: Mt. Snow, Vermont
588 skiable acres; vertical drop 1,700 feet; summit elevation 3,600 feet; 156 annual inches; 102 trails; 19 lifts, including three high-speed quads. Lift tickets: adult (19–64) $75, young adult (13–18) $60, junior (6–12) $48, senior (65-plus) $48

Lodging: Find slopeside convenience at the 200-room Grand Summit Resort Hotel, reminiscent of others in the former American Skiing Company empire. The resort also operates the nearby Snow Lake Lodge (100 rooms) and a quartet of condo complexes huddled around the base area ($89–$349; 800-451-4211; mountsnow.com). Or snuggle up in one of the many charming, New England–style inns, including the Inn at Sawmill Farm ($325–$750; 800-464-8131; theinnatsawmillfarm.com), the White House Inn ($148–$350; 866-774-2135; whitehouseinn.com) and the Deerhill Inn ($150–$335; 800-993-3379; deerhillinn.com). Just a mile south of Mount Snow is the luxurious Snow Goose Inn ($125–$375; 888-604-7964; snowgooseinn.com), while the romantic Nutmeg Country Inn ($89–$299; 800-277-5402; nutmeginn.com) sits about 10 minutes away and offers sleigh rides and ski package deals.

Dining: For casual American with music and dancing, try the Silo—an architectural original (802-464-2553; thesilomountsnow.com). For fine dining and long wine lists, the area has three reliable rustic-elegant favorites: the Inn at Sawmill Farm (802-464-8131; theinnatsawmillfarm.com), Doveberry Inn (802-464-5652; doveberryinn.com), White House Inn (802-464-2135; whitehouse-inn.com) and Deerhill Inn (802-464-3100; deerhillinn.com). The Anchor is a local favorite for seafood and burgers (802-464-2112).

Après-Ski: Join the wild après scene at Cuzzin’s (where the line can be long) for live music and dancing. The Snow Barn, with billiards, pizza and live music, is popular on weekends. The younger crowd likes the 10-cent happy-hour wings at the Silo.

Don’t Miss: Go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing at the Hermitage. The Inn offers 50 kilometers of cross-country trails, which link up with the trans-Vermont Catamount Trail. Families love Wilmington’s Adams Farm, with a petting barn, sleigh rides and fondue nights (802-464-3762). Farther south, enjoy a glass of maple-sweetened Vermont Harvest apple wine from the North River Winery in Jacksonville (802-368-7557).

Info: 800-824-7669; snow phone: 802-464-2151; mountsnow.com

- SKI MAGAZINE, DECEMBER 2008

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