From Machines to Mountains

The Fascinating Process of Snowmaking Uncovered
Renowned for its superior snow quality and consistent conditions in Southern California, Big Bear Mountain Resort (BBMR) owes its reputation to its robust snowmaking prowess. This proficiency not only ensures unwavering skiing and snowboarding conditions but also elevates the snow experience throughout the entire season.

The resort's expansive snowmaking infrastructure boasts an impressive array of resources, including over 700 hydrants, 330 snow guns, and 40 fans. This impressive setup has the capacity to transform a remarkable 6,000 gallons of water into snow every minute. With such impressive capabilities and a record for the most operational days per season in the Southern California region, it's hardly a surprise that Snow Summit was chosen to host the inaugural Winter X Games in 1997.

The snowmaking process at BBMR is driven by a skilled and committed team that spans various roles, ensuring the resort's ability to create and maintain high-quality snow conditions for guests.
  • Experienced Team: The snowmaking team at BBMR comprises highly experienced individuals who have been dedicated to their roles for a considerable period of time. Some managers and directors have been a part of the BBMR team for over 20 years, highlighting their commitment and expertise in the field.
  • Shift Structure: Each shift typically includes around 10 to 12 employees, and they're divided among different trails across the mountain. This distribution allows the team to cover a wide area efficiently.
  • Dedication to Snowmaking: The team's commitment is evident in their dedication to producing snow. They endeavor to make snow on any night when favorable conditions align, showcasing their dedication to ensuring optimal skiing and snowboarding experiences for visitors.
  • Employment Opportunities: BBMR offers employment opportunities in snowmaking. Those interested in becoming part of the snowmaking team are encouraged to apply, and no prior experience is required. The resort provides training to new team members, making it an accessible option for those interested in working in this dynamic field.
three snowmakers standing next to a snowmaking gun
When does Snowmaking Start for the Season?
Snowmaking operations will begin at BBMR when overnight temps dip into the low-20s with relatively low humidity and light winds. This typically starts at the beginning of or mid-November and will continue when conditions allow through February.

snow guns shooting out compressed water turning into snow

What types of snowmaking machines are utilized by BBMR?
BBMR employs several types of snowmaking machines to ensure optimal snow conditions:

  • SMI Machines: These specialized machines are manufactured by SMI and are an integral part of the resort's snowmaking arsenal. With a plethora of models, we own and operate the following - Wizard, Super Wizard, Kid Wizard, and their newest model called Pole Cat.
  • Snow Guns: Made by brands like, Demac Lenko and Techno Alpine, these devices generate water droplets by combining cooled water and compressed air. When observing a ski slope, you'll notice that these guns are connected to two distinct hoses leading to air and water hydrant stations.
  • Compressed Guns vs. Fan Guns: The resort employs a combination of these two types. Compressed snow guns, which are fixed in position, are powered by compressed air. Fan guns, on the other hand, can be moved around and utilize fans to disperse the snow. Bear Mountain and Snow Summit utilize both compressed air guns and fan guns in their snowmaking operations. Snow Valley exclusively employs fan guns for their snowmaking endeavors.
  • High-Pressure Air and Water Guns: At Bear Mountain and Snow Summit, high-pressure air is propelled through water lines embedded in the hillside. This combination of high-pressure air and water is employed to create artificial snow.

snow guns shooting out snow on a sunny day

What is the typical temperature range required for snowmaking?
The wet bulb temperature serves as a critical factor in determining whether the conditions are suitable for artificial snow production. Snowmaking generally requires a specific temperature range to be effective:

  • Wet Bulb Temperature: This measurement needs to be at or below freezing for optimal snowmaking conditions. Specifically, a wet bulb temperature of 27 degrees Fahrenheit or lower is ideal. The wet bulb temperature is determined using a thermometer covered with a wet cloth. This damp cloth measures the cooling effect of evaporation, providing a more accurate representation of the actual cooling conditions.
  • Utilizing the Wet Bulb: To illustrate, consider a scenario where the air temperature is 32 degrees Fahrenheit on a dry night. In such conditions, the wet bulb temperature can read as low as 22 degrees Fahrenheit. This level of wet bulb temperature is highly conducive to effective snowmaking.

How many snow guns does BBMR possess?
BBMR maintains a variety of snow guns across its different locations:

  • Snow Valley (SV): Approximately 77 fan guns are deployed at various locations throughout Snow Valley to produce snow.
  • Snow Summit (SS): Snow Summit employs around 90 fan guns to facilitate their artificial snow creation process.
  • Bear Mountain (BM): Roughly 45 fan guns are utilized at Bear Mountain as part of their snowmaking operations.

What are the factors that influence the ability to produce artificial snow?

Several factors play a role in determining the feasibility of creating artificial snow:

  • Temperature and Humidity: Temperature and humidity levels are critical. Ideal snowmaking conditions occur when humidity is low to moderate. Low temperatures are necessary to freeze water particles effectively, while moderate humidity ensures that the water droplets generated by snow guns remain in a suitable state for snow production.
  • Power Constraints: In the valley where the resort is situated, there can be limitations on the available electrical power. Given the substantial electricity demand for snowmaking equipment, the capacity of electrical supply systems can impact the extent of snowmaking operations. High traveler numbers can strain the power infrastructure, potentially affecting the ability to produce snow.
  • Wind: Wind patterns also play a significant role. Strong winds during snowmaking operations can complicate the process. The wind can interfere with the precise placement of snow, making it challenging to control where the snow accumulates on the slopes.
The interplay of these factors determines the resort's ability to efficiently and effectively produce artificial snow to enhance skiing and snowboarding conditions.

snowmaking machines in the pump house

What conditions constitute an ideal day for snowmaking?

A perfect snowmaking day is characterized by specific conditions that optimize the process:

  • Dry Air and Wind: Ideal conditions involve dry air paired with moderate to strong winds, such as the Santa Ana winds. Dry air ensures that the water droplets produced by the snow guns remain in a suitable form for snow creation. Wind aids in distributing the artificial snow evenly across the slopes.
  • Sustained Weather: Consistency is key. Snowmaking requires sustained conditions for 48 to 72 hours to produce a sufficient layer of snow across the slopes. This prolonged period of consistent conditions allows for the gradual accumulation of snow.
  • Low Wet Bulb Temperature: A significant factor is a low wet bulb temperature, which should approach or be at approximately 0 degrees Fahrenheit. The wet bulb temperature, a combination of temperature and humidity, indicates the effectiveness of snowmaking conditions. Lower wet bulb temperatures are crucial for efficient snow production.
When these elements align, a perfect snowmaking day emerges, facilitating the creation of high-quality artificial snow that enhances skiing and snowboarding experiences on the slopes.

Snowmaking requirement chart

Is snowmaking conducted throughout the entire season?

Snowmaking is a routine activity that takes place through February. The snowmaking crew focuses their efforts on specific runs they are actively constructing. This involves a strategic approach where wetter, denser snow is produced to create a solid base and depth, while lighter snow is used for surface coverage.

The snowmaking team remains vigilant, working whenever the right temperature conditions align. They are committed to creating optimal snow conditions and will operate on any suitable night. However, by around February or early March, a decision is typically made to conclude the snowmaking process for the season. This decision is influenced by factors such as the existing base depth on the runs and the quality of the surface. The team continually monitors the base depth and surface quality, taking steps to refresh runs when possible to bolster depth. The ultimate goal is to achieve a base depth of approximately 4 feet of snow, providing the best possible skiing and snowboarding experience throughout the season.

During which time of day is snowmaking typically conducted?

Snowmaking operations are often scheduled during specific timeframes and follow certain patterns:

  • Shift Schedule: The snowmaking crew typically operates in 12-hour shifts - Snow Valley from 9PM-9AM, Snow Summit from 5PM-5AM, and Bear Mountain from 1AM-1PM. This schedule enables continuous monitoring and management of the snowmaking process during the crucial overnight and early morning hours when temperatures are most favorable for efficient snow production.
  • 24-Hour Operations: At times, the snowmaking guns might run non-stop, 24 hours a day, especially during periods of optimal temperature and weather conditions. This extended operation ensures maximum snow production.
Snowmaking is a round-the-clock endeavor, with shifts and operational hours tailored to capitalize on the most advantageous temperature conditions while prioritizing safety and guest enjoyment.

pond water with two pipes with water coming out of it

From where is the water sourced for snowmaking?

BBMR purchases the water required for snowmaking from the Big Bear Municipal Water District (WMD). This arrangement allows the resort to access the necessary water resources for their snowmaking operations, ensuring the creation of optimal snow conditions for skiing and snowboarding.

How is the decision made regarding which trails to prioritize for snowmaking?

Determining which trails to focus snowmaking efforts on is a strategic process that takes several factors into account:

  • Historical Approach: Past snowmaking efforts, spanning weeks or even months, serve as a basis for decision-making. Prior successful strategies and experiences inform the current approach to snowmaking.
  • Chairlift Accessibility: A key consideration is to ensure ample chairlift access for skiers and snowboarders. This often begins with top-to-bottom coverage on runs that include Summit and beginner trails. This is followed by extending snowmaking to more advanced terrain like Miracle Mile. Expanding both skiing and lift terrain allows for greater capacity, accommodating more visitors and thus increasing ticket sales.
  • Terrain Parks: The construction of terrain parks is another important facet. Focusing snowmaking efforts on building and maintaining terrain parks is vital to ensure their quality. This is essential for attracting visitors seeking specific experiences, such as terrain park enthusiasts.
The decision-making process involves a blend of historical data, the need for comprehensive chairlift access, the expansion of skiing terrain, and catering to specific demands such as terrain park creation. The ultimate goal is to provide a diverse and high-quality skiing and snowboarding experience for guests.

How much time is typically required to cover a trail with artificial snow?
  • BBMR's Timeframe: At Big Bear Mountain Resort, the timeline for getting a trail open through snowmaking ranges from 26 to 48 hours, assuming favorable snowmaking conditions. If conditions are ideal, the process is expedited. However, when weather conditions are less than optimal, it can take significantly longer to achieve the desired coverage.
  • Inversion Layers: A phenomenon called inversion layers comes into play. In Big Bear Valley, for instance, temperatures vary with elevation. While the base area may experience cold temperatures due to its proximity to the lake, the temperature rises as one ascends the hillside. This can lead to challenges in snowmaking, where the base area might be conducive to snow production, but the upper parts of the hill are less favorable due to dramatic temperature changes.
The time required to cover a trail with artificial snow is influenced by the rate of snow production, weather conditions, and the specific geographic and meteorological features of the resort area.

drone view of water in a snowy mountain surrounding

Where are the reservoir systems to manage water resources for snowmaking
  • Water Collection from Lake: The resort operates pumps at the lake to gather water. These pumps feed two separate pipes—one designated for Bear Mountain and another for Snow Summit.
  • On-Hill Reservoirs: The collected water is stored in on-hill reservoirs, contributing to the resort's snowmaking capacity.
  • Snow Valley (SV) Water Source: Snow Valley employs a different water source. They draw water production from two deep water wells. One well is located in the parking lot, while the other is positioned around one-third of the way up the hill. These wells play a significant role in supplying water for snowmaking operations at Snow Valley.
  • Snow Summit (SS) Reservoirs: Snow Summit boasts a substantial storage capacity, with reservoirs capable of holding approximately 18 million gallons of water.
  • Bear Mountain (BM) Reservoirs: Bear Mountain's reservoirs, on the other hand, have a capacity of around 15 million gallons of water.
These reservoirs and wells are essential components of BBMR's snowmaking infrastructure, facilitating the efficient utilization of water resources for optimal artificial snow production.
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