BIG BEAR — The air is so dry it seems brittle. Stars clutter cloudless sky. But because of the blizzard raging, it ain't a fit night out for man nor beast.
That's why the men working the graveyard shift at Snow Summit ski area in Big Bear keep stomping into the room marked "Snow Making" to gulp down coffee and chip the ice off their boots and eyebrows.
"Most people don't even know where (the snow they ski on) comes from," one young worker says as he stares out a steamy window at the man-made flurries sweeping across the slopes. "They think it just falls out of the sky."
This month, clouds finally deigned to dump natural snow on California's mountains, and resorts from Squaw Valley to Mt. Waterman reported great skiing. But during the peak of the season--from Thanksgiving to New Year's--nature left California's slopes colored in rich earth tones, and left resort owners frantic.
In Southern California, however, three ski areas took matters into their own hands.
Southern California ski resorts claim to manufacture more snow than any similarly sized geographic area in the world, and they care for it as if it were powdered platinum.
Termed "snow farming," this developing art begins when crews plant snow on the slopes and continues as they cultivate it with "snow cats." Cousins to agricultural combines, the cats tow an array of attachments that would look in place churning through wheat or lima bean fields.
But the agricultural comparison is too pacific for what goes on. In the early days of this season--while the big resorts in Mammoth and Lake Tahoe remained reluctantly idle--the snow-making operations at some local resorts had the look of open warfare.
Actually, at first glance, they looked as if a war had been waged and lost.
Around 11 p.m. at Snow Summit, lights blazed all the way up the mountain. There was no sign of life, though.
Empty lift chairs swung through a loading station and looped endlessly up the hill, creating an unsettling panorama. The lodge and shops and restaurants were abandoned, and the roar of guns spewing geysers of white powder into the wind absorbed shouts of "Anyone here?"
At the base of the mountain, a foggy window in a chateau-like building revealed a scene unexpected among the alpine trappings: Two men seated at a panel containing as many switches and blinking lights as the control room of the Strategic Air Command. Behind them, big yellow generators thundered as they cranked out the power to run the area's snow making machinery.
Above the power station in the snow makers' room, men with bright foul-weather clothing partially pealed back and ear protectors hanging on their necks huddled before a large wall map.
Torrents of Powder
The map displays the mountain's ski runs and more than 400 hydrants containing outlets for water and pressurized air. On a plastic overlay, Rick Sluder, Summit's snow making supervisor, had drawn in dozens of "snow guns," 61 of which were currently firing torrents of powder.
A sticker on the bottom of the board reads: "There's no business like snow business"--a thought that probably crosses the minds of the crew often in the course of a long shift.
"You don't get cold out there," one cold-looking young man said. "It's hard work. You sweat."
"Yeah, but if you stand still a few minutes it freezes," someone else added.
Glancing at a gauge showing the system's air pressure, checking the temperature as relayed from the base weather station and sensors positioned every 200 vertical feet up the mountain, Sluder ordered the men about like a commander positioning artillery.
In response, teams hopped onto snowmobiles and rocketed up the tree-lined slopes. Throughout the night and all the next day, workers moved from site to site, dragging 50-foot sections of 2 1/2-inch orange or yellow hose and positioning the snow guns to which the hose is attached.
A mile or so to the east a similar scene unfolded.
"Last night was probably better--everything went up and came straight down. Now the wind's blowing it around," said Paul Bauer, night manager at Goldmine ski area. "We'll probably do close to a million gallons tonight."
The snow-making ability of a resort depends on several variables. First the area needs snow guns and the plumbing--usually placed underground--to supply air and water. It also needs a water source and a lot of power, which it can either generate itself, as Snow Summit does, or buy from a local utility.
Finally, the resort needs sub-freezing weather--the colder and dryer the better.
In Southern California, Snow Valley in Running Springs, Mt. Baldy ski area in the Angeles National Forest, Snow Summit and Goldmine in Big Bear, and Mountain High/Holiday Hill near Wrightwood have each invested a lot of money in snow making.