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How Pennsylvania ski resorts make fake snow to get by in warm winters

The concept dates to the 1930s. It certainly has snowballed since.

A snow machine fan gun blows man-made snow at Blue Mountain Resort in Palmerton, Pa.
A snow machine fan gun blows man-made snow at Blue Mountain Resort in Palmerton, Pa.Read more / File Photograph

PALMERTON, Pa. — Winter was making a cameo appearance, and the snow cannons at Blue Mountain were blasting away in an all-out assault on snow deprivation. Like white water gushing from fire hoses, squalls of snow ejected from the yellow guns, lavishing a thick frosting on the trails for the skiers, boarders, and tubers.

After yet another warm spell, Blue Mountain, just north of Allentown and barely in the vestibule of the Poconos, was able to produce snow again on Thursday, as temperatures finally were cold enough for snowmaking.

“Yeah. For two whole days,” said Bob Taylor, who has been in charge of the resort’s snowmaking operations since 2006.

Yet, thanks to a technology that traces its origins to human ingenuity, desperation, and the 1930s, and conquered hails of skepticism, Taylor promised that trails would be open during the weekend — record high temperatures were reached across the region Saturday — come hell or global meltdown. By Friday morning, after he had put in a 14½-hour day, the slopes had a 24-to-42-inch base of machine-made powder.

Through long experience with nature’s cold shoulders, ski operators have become evermore proficient at making their own snow. Snowmaking is the lifeblood of Pennsylvania’s ski industry, among the oldest in the nation, and is vital even in the snow countries of Upstate New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

So far this winter, the machines are far outperforming nature.

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It’s bad enough that the slopes are snow-starved, but even mood flakes and sugary roadsides have been sparse in the areas where the customers live, and ski operators will tell you that for drumming up business, snow beats billboards and bumper stickers.

“It’s frustrating,” Taylor said on a blessedly frigid Thursday as customers poured into the resort. The cold spell was over by Friday, along with near- or below-freezing temperatures needed for snowmaking.

This weekend? A nightmare. Temperatures , reached record highs, a development about as welcome as a winter-storm warning in August would be for the Jersey Shore.

So when did humans start doing nature’s dirty work?

Increasing temperatures across the country in recent years likely has meant brisker business for the snow-gun runners, but the concept of creating a man-made skiable surface dates at least to 1934, according to Jeff Leich, who runs the New England Ski Museum.

That year the Toronto Ski Club confronted a crisis. It had planned a major ski-jumping competition, but not only was it lacking in snow, none was in the foreseeable future.

At the request of club officials, the University of Toronto agreed to have its ice planer shave off layers of ice from its skating rink. Trucks delivered — 75 tons’ worth — to the jump site, which was about 4 miles away. Enough ice was available to cover the hill, with several inches available for the landing area. The run was even faster than it would have been with natural snow.

Around the same time, a similar project was undertaken on Bear Mountain in New York.

The concept snowballed. In November 1935, Boston Gardens hosted its first winter-sports show, which became an annual event, spreading 500 tons of ice across a 17,000-square-foot course. New York hosted its own show in Madison Square Garden the following year.

Walter Schoenknecht, the man who built Vermont’s Mount Snow, borrowed the icing strategy during the snowless winter of 1949-50, when he imported 700 tons of ice for his modest ski resort in the Berkshires, Mohawk Mountain, recounted ski historian Nils Ericksen in an article published in Ski Area Management. The ice didn’t last long, but he sold 1,800 tickets in one weekend and resolved to find an easier and cheaper way to do this.

It so happened that among his Mohawk Mountain customers was one Wayne Pierce. With two partners, he developed an apparatus consisting of hoses, compressed air, and specially designed nozzles and delivered it to Mohawk. It made a horrific “shriek,” but it also made snow. Pierce filed for a patent in 1950.

The 1950s, stingy with snow in the East, constituted a watershed decade for the snowmaking industry, and among the pioneering resorts was Pennsylvania’s Big Boulder the winter of 1956-57.

Among the holdouts was Bromley Mountain’s Fred Pabst. “No one thought you could cover a whole damn mount with snow,” he was quoted in the New York Times in 1975 as saying. “But I’ve found that it’s more expensive to have to close our ticket windows because we’re out of snow.” He caved, and installed a $750 million system.

Is it fake snow?

It’s just like the stuff that falls from the skies, assures Taylor: hexagonal crystals attached to tiny nucleated particles.

» READ MORE: Earliest opening ever for some Poconos, Lehigh Valley ski resorts because of record cold

Water is pumped through nozzles from a nearby source — a reservoir, lake, or in Blue Mountain’s case, a nearby creek — and theoretically returns to the water bodies with the thaw, although some moisture evaporates in the snowmaking process. It takes 4.1 gallons to make a cubic foot of snow, Taylor said, and last season, Blue Mountain pumped more than 240 million gallons.

Some guns use compressed air; others, high-powered fans.

But from primitive nozzles, the technology has advanced to levels that the early developers could never have envisioned. The machine at Blue Mountain looks more as if it belongs in the belly of a nuclear submarine. The system, most of which is supplied by TechnoAlpin, is fully automated but requires significant human maintenance.

“Years ago, you went out and hooked up hoses and turned on the valves,” said Taylor, opening a circuit board that resembled a computer’s central nervous system. “Now we have to be able to fix all this ... [unpleasant descriptive noun].”

Asked how much all this costs, he says: “I can’t count that high.” But the resort’s Ashley Seier says snowmaking consumes about 30% of the annual budget.

Does the environment mind?

About 85% of the National Ski Areas Association resorts make snow, said the group’s Adrienne Saia Isaac, which means they are using massive amounts of energy-consuming machinery.

More resorts and longer seasons mean more stresses on water supplies, not to mention more carbon-spewing traffic on once-pristine mountain roads.

Some resorts in the West have even resorted to using wastewater, which has been a source of controversy and litigation.

So who needs natural snow?

Ski resorts, badly. Along with being fantastic for marketing, for ski areas it’s an immense money-saver.

With snow, the cliche is true: There’s nothing like the real thing.