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A Day in the Life of A Snowmaker

by Gabrielle Martin and Nicole Pineau

Ever wondered what it’s like to be a Sugarloaf snowmaker?

Our snowmakers are responsible for operating the resort’s snowmaking equipment on mountainous terrain, from set up to shut down; this includes checking snow gun function capacity and monitoring snow quality, all while prioritizing efficient and safe operation, which is achieved by routine inspection of guns, hoses, and hydrants. They must be able to navigate all types of terrain, whatever the weather—talk about true grit!

Sugarloaf snowmakers at sunrise
Photo by David Demo

Snowmaking at Sugarloaf is a crucial component in launching our ski season as early as possible; thanks to the pre-season efforts of our tireless team, we were able to open before Thanksgiving Day this year. They are also essential in expanding terrain throughout the early season, and assist our efforts to stay open as late as we can in the spring.

Quick Facts

  • 1,400 hydrant sets
  • 4,550 GPM water capacity
  • 27,000 CFM air capacity

Our snowmakers are a collection of passionate outdoor enthusiasts who share a love of snow sports. This year, have a total of 24 snowmakers on our team, split between day crew and night crew; both work 12-hour shifts.

Night crew snowmakers

Each shift starts with a quick crew meeting, where the team discusses conditions, tools needed, and trail assignments. Then our snowmakers load into the cat basket and head to the hill; during these rides, day crew catches epic sunrises, and on clear evenings, the Milky Way makes an appearance for night crew.

Snowmakers then complete what is called “gun runs.”

 

What’s A Gun Run?

When snowmakers say they’re going on a gun run, what they mean is they’re heading out on-hill to monitor the trails with active snowmaking—so if and when snowmaking is online, you can count that our tireless team is constantly evaluating the guns, hydrants, and snow quality.

Gun runs are unpredictable; sometimes snowmakers are able to maintain given weather or power availability, but other days it’s swapping hoses, repairing guns, and thawing hydrants. Snowmakers also shut down, move/set up gear, and then light the system back up.

Simply put, snowmakers look at the mountain like a big board game—and they’re moving the pieces.

 

Snowmaking Controller

Snowmaking operations rely on the Snowmaking Controller, who works also 12-hour shifts, during which he or she is responsible for managing the compressors and pumps; this role requires constant directing and readjusting of the flow and pressure of air and water. 

Control

Fun fact:

  • Sugarloaf has 4 controllers, 5 air compressors, and 7 pumps that the Controller operates.

Think of the Controller like the wizard behind the curtain who all the snowmakers dispatch to.

 

Glissading: Our Snowmaker’s Secret Super Power

Butt-sledding, or glissading, is a unique aspect of Sugarloaf’s snowmaking operations; one snowmaker describes it as a “purpose-driver,” saying that it allows snowmakers to travel around the mountain much faster, “which is essential as response time is critical to the job. Also, it’s a Mario Kart-like experience. It’s a childlike dream to work while sledding”—and, for night crew—“looking at the moon and stars.”

Sound surreal?

“It’s actually a safe mode of transport,” they say. “We’re already on the ground, so we won’t slip and fall. Walking on icy or snowy icy conditions can be quite dangerous, so glissading not only wicked fun, it’s the safer option… and it’s our super power.”

Snowmaker glissading at Sugarloaf

Each handmade, plastic sled is custom-cut to the snowmaker and fastened to their pants with paracord; sitting on the sled, the snowmaker then uses an ice ax or wrecking bar as both rudder and break as he makes his way down the mountain from hydrant and hydrant, firing up snow guns along the way.

 

Ask A Snowmaker: “Are there any snowmaking just-don't-do-'ems?”

Snowmaking is a job with a lot of high risk factors and safety is always our crew’s number one priority, so naturally, there are a lot of just-don’t-do-’ems in this department.

Here are some pro-tips from our snowmakers of things to avoid on-the-job:

  • “Don’t forget snacks. You never know if it will be a 45 minute gun run or a nine hour gun run.”
  • “Don’t mutter into the radio—speak clearly.” Like our lift department and ski patrol, our snowmakers use a radio to communicate; they share Channel 1 with our groomers.

 

Ask A Snowmaker: “What's your favorite part of a day-on-the-job?”

  • “System max out! That is when we’re operating most efficiently.”
  • “The end of the day, when you’re walking down a trail with your crew with the headlamps off, and the stars and moon are out. We’re on a big, beautiful, and quiet mountain with our friends. That experience beats any desk job in the world.”
  • "When I go to make a Java’s run covered in ice. I love the admiring and confused looks that guests give me.”
  • “When people holler from the lift, and you give them the mit!”

  

Ask A Snowmaker: “What is something you wish more people knew about snowmakers or snowmaking?”

  • “I wish more people knew about the process of completing a trail to the point where it is groomed and ski-able. Snowmaking spends about 48-72 hours, depending on the weather, just to making piles of snow—not to mention the hours of setting up gear and removing it from the trail. It then takes a full day or two for the snow to cure in the piles that we create; curing allows it to dry out and become good product that is ready for grooming. Sometimes guests get to ski whales but not very often; otherwise it can take a whole grooming shift for one snow cat operator—that’s 8-10 hours—to create the level and smooth snowpack that is ready for skiing. It’s not as easy as make snow, ski it.”
  • “The snowmaking department operates 24/7, and each snowmaker works 50-60 hours per week. Snowmakers are job creators; the season doesn't happen without us. We really love the mountain, and we really hope the mountain loves us.” (We do!)
  • “We’re here before anyone else arrives, and we stay after everyone leaves; we’re here longer than any guest or other department. We laugh at your first chair/last chair brag.”
  • “We’re warm and loving people too. We’re not just cold.”

  

A Day in the Life of a Sugarloaf Snowmaker

Snowmaking is an intricate operation that combines art and science, commitment to craft and skill, requiring odd hours and resilience to the elements, whether it’s ice, snow, or wind. Each day as a Sugarloaf snowmaker is different, and even “typical” days on-the-job are rarely typical.

Sugarloaf snowmakers

Our snowmaking department had 8 new hires this season and are currently looking to add to their crew, so if you’re interested, please submit an application for employment here. They say, “We are very willing to train anyone who has a passion for snow, gritty work, and the great outdoors.”

 

I Am A Snowmaker

Interested in learning more about the Loaf life? Our sensational snowmakers were one of seven crews selected to participate in the seventh annual "I Am A Snowmaker" contest presented by HKD Snowmakers and Ski Area Management (SAM), the voice of the mountain resort industry. Since its debut in 2014, "I Am" has become a popular and compelling platform for resorts to recognize the passion, grit, and expertise of their snowmaking teams, and this year’s contest will be no exception, as the theme revolves around elements of our industry that captivate all of us: nature, people, and purpose. 


Photo by David Demo

Resorts across North America were invited to share a behind-the-scenes look at how their snowmaking crew fuses art and science with purpose and passion to deliver an unforgettable experience for skiers and snowboarders, all encapsulated in a 2-to-3 minute video. Stay tuned for their submission.

Snowmaking Foreman