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Priming the Poconos

PALMERTON, Pa. - Lead snowmaker Ryan "Rudy" Rute pulls on a Carhartt jumpsuit ripped at the knees and elbows and frayed at every seam. In a heated garage, he caucuses with his staff of six about the plan for the night.

PALMERTON, Pa. - Lead snowmaker Ryan "Rudy" Rute pulls on a Carhartt jumpsuit ripped at the knees and elbows and frayed at every seam. In a heated garage, he caucuses with his staff of six about the plan for the night.

Just after 10 p.m., each of the men peels off into face-chapping winds and snow squalls that cover their snowmobiles with ice to make the first of many trips up and down the ski slopes before the sun comes up.

The night skiers at Blue Mountain have gone home. The chairlifts are still. The mountain is theirs.

"I sometimes call them the wolves," said the ski area's general manager, Jim Dailey.

Rute's crew works through the night, every night, driving snowmobiles up and down the mountain, tending to more than 500 guns that spray snow to lay the base for the trails and preparing the trails for the next day's skiers.

This is crunch time - "the playoffs," said Mark Schroetel, general manager of Bear Creek Mountain Resort in Macungie, Lehigh County - with snowmakers around the region rushing to blanket with white as many trails and tubing slopes as possible in time for the holiday rush, even as the region remained largely free of natural snow.

The work they do is grueling: cold, wet, and dark. And often, this time of year, it can be frustrating. Cold temperatures can quickly turn, as they did a week ago, to warmth and rain, and wash away weeks of work building snow on the trials.

Why do it? Ask Rute. The 44-year-old mountain manager from Danielsville has been working nights at Blue Mountain in Carbon County since 1984.

Sure, the weather can be brutal, such as the night it was 30 below. (He has had new hires quit mid-shift.) And he and his wife wonder what life would be like if he worked days. But, he said, "I love it up here."

Rute turned almost giddy as he talked about the resort's equipment, capable of pumping 12,000 gallons of water per minute from retention ponds through pipes up the slopes to the guns, where the water is mixed with compressed air to become thick plumes of snow.

Once he set out on his rounds, the whine of his snowmobile mixed with the steady hum of the guns as Rute zipped up the mountain from the tubing slopes below to one of the steepest trails at the top. He tucked his chin to his chest when he drove under a gun's stream, shielding his face from the pelting snow. He plowed through mounds of fresh powder and pushed the throttle where the trails opened up flat and smooth.

Until the lifts open at 8:30 a.m., this is his winter wonderland.

"It's peaceful," said Brad Haydt, 42, of Kunkletown, who has been making snow nearly as long as Rute has.

Though Pennsylvania ski areas don't have the ski-destination identity of northern New England or the Rocky Mountains, the state's 31 resorts compete mightily for their slice of the $6 billion U.S. ski-industry pie.

Last year, Pennsylvania ski areas had 3.6 million visits, putting the state sixth in line behind more expected giants - Colorado, California, Vermont, Utah, and New York - according to the National Ski Area Association.

The nighttime snowmakers have a key role in helping attract that crowd. Resorts in the Rocky Mountains have snowmaking equipment covering about 12 percent of trails, said association spokesman Troy Hawks. In the Pacific Northwest, that drops to 2 percent. In Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic, it reaches 98 percent coverage.

All of Blue Mountain's trails are covered by snowmaking equipment.

The people who run it "make the soup we serve," Dailey said.

About half of the system has been converted to automated guns that can be operated from an office control panel and are more energy efficient. The new guns are nice, Rute said. But he has an affinity for the older ones, called "air hogs" for the high volume of compressed air they use. These demand constant attention.

"I like to go out there and be hands-on and work for a living," he said.

Six times each night, his crew will make the rounds to the guns, stick a gloved hand up into the falling snow to watch how it sticks, and adjust the air and water levels for optimal consistency - wet, but not too wet. Then they will head back to the break room, toss their gear into an industrial dryer, wait for their Carhartts to dry and their faces to thaw, and do it again.

Their progress is measured in giant mounds of snow. That's when the groomers come in.

Late Tuesday night, grooming supervisor Danny Shupp, 37, of Palmerton, used the plow-like blades on either end of his treaded snowcat to reshape the jumps and slopes of Blue Mountain's terrain park after a day's use. Then he carved a corduroy-like texture on the surface.

Shupp's snowcat is his office.

It maneuvered easily along the steep slopes. The cab was warm and, most nights, the radio keeps Shupp company. As with a trucker on a nighttime haul, the machine offered shelter from the elements.

"This one," he said, tapping on the center console, "her name's Bessie."

For him, the job is about building something, creating a ski area where there wasn't one before. In the summertime, he helps to build new trails. In winter, he is focused on quality and safety - making the mountain the best it can be for its customers.

"The mountain is the canvas," he said.

Shupp and Rute said it's a downer when the temperatures spike and they watch some of what they created melt away. But, when it cools back down, the snow guns are running again.

Early Wednesday morning, snow blown adrift coated pine trees and lift chairs, creating the picture-book look of deep winter. Just beyond the Blue Mountain parking lot, a dusting of the natural stuff was just beginning to stick, giving the brown land a hint of white.