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"This is an incredible project for our mountain, it is probably one of the most significant capital investments we’ve made to the mountain in Vail’s history."
Beth Howard
Vail Mountain COO
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Learn more about Vail’s earlier opening date from Vail Mountain COO Beth Howard

A Visionary Plan

This project will completely alter the way Vail approaches its opening day and early season terrain.

It’s an idea that started taking shape over the last decade amongst mountain personnel as they discussed how to improve the early season experience. The project shifted into dedicated planning in 2017 and by April 2019 had received the go-ahead from the U.S. Forest Service after a rigorous review process.

“We’re really changing our operation from the Born Free scenario opening, to the Mid-Vail scenario,” says Director of Snowmaking, Dave Tucholke. “We’re taking the snowmaking up top of the mountain so we can take advantage of colder temperatures sooner. We’ll be so much more effective there.”

“It’s going to really elevate that experience early season.” says Vail Mountain COO Beth Howard. “We have signature beginner and intermediate terrain in that area; Swingsville, Ramshorn and The Meadows, which are some of our most popular terrain. It’ll give us more assurance for top to bottom skiing early season as well as connectivity to each village.” For never-evers, Gopher Hill Lift (#12) will open at the base of Golden Peak.

“The Mid-Vail experience is really going to be something I think that our early season guests, if they haven’t seen it before at that time of year, are really going to fall in love with,” says Director of Mountain Operations Bryan Rooney, “The views up there are phenomenal, (with sweeping) views of the Gore Range.”

Read on for more information on the technology behind the snowmaking project as well as how it plays into Vail’s Commitment to Zero initiative.

421 new, energy-efficient guns are being added to Vail’s snowmaking fleet, including 70 fixed locations along signature Mid-Vail runs, Ramshorn, Swingsville and The Meadows. This addition will completely alter Vail’s trail opening sequence from day one.

More snow, faster, more efficiently, with less reliance on mother nature.

Making snow isn’t just about cold temperatures. Snowmakers have to analyze and adjust snow distribution based on a variety of factors. The best snow is made in cold, dry conditions. 

After factoring for humidity, snowmakers are able to measure the wet bulb temperature. Once it hits 28 degrees they can start making snow. As the temperature drops more water can be pumped through the snow guns, reaching a sweet spot at around 10 degrees wet bulb. The quality of snow changes on either side of that sweet spot. In the past, all of that has been done manually by snowmakers changing settings at the site of the snow guns after hauling the equipment into place and attaching the hoses.

“Snowmaking’s been around for a long, long time, and it’s been a lot of hard work,” says 39-year Vail snowmaking veteran Dave Tucholke, now in his 19th season as Vail’s Snowmaking Manager. He knows perhaps better than anyone the challenges and inefficiencies of manually positioning and adjusting snow guns in freezing cold temperatures, hence it’s with unabashed enthusiasm that he speaks about the state-of-the-art equipment being installed at Vail.

“We’re really excited about the automatic snowmaking. We can be automatic, computer controlled, turn the guns on and off automatically from the control room, which will save us a lot of labor,” he says. "We can focus on making the snow, not moving the snowguns.” 
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At Snow Central, this revolutionary technology is on full display as snowmakers use software to monitor each individual snowgun, which is sending real-time information about the temperature reading at its specific site, air pressure and gallons of water per minute. Snowmakers can then remotely manipulate the settings to maximize snow quality and output.

In short, this technology means that Vail can make the most of every moment that conditions allow for snowmaking.

And it’s not just about automation, it’s also about energy efficiency. The new snow guns being installed, the SMI Super PoleCat and the tower mounted HKD Phazer, were customized specifically to the areas on Vail Mountain where they are being installed and are the most energy efficient in the industry. They'll reduce snowmaking energy at Vail by 85%, the equivalent of the electricity needed to power 73 typical American homes and eliminate CO2 emissions equal to those generated by 126 typical passenger cars.

As for the water being used to create the snow, it’s 75% non-consumptive, meaning 75% of that water will go back into the local watershed. 

“As a company that’s leading the way in innovating snowmaking, Vail Mountain had the opportunity  to work with HKD Snowmakers to test out and customize new products that have a lot more range and manipulation on them,” says snowmaking lead Luke. "Every location has a unique gun to fit the demand of that location.”
Getting the water and compressed air to the new snowmaking locations around the mountain was a feat unto itself, with nearly 50,000 feet of pipeline being installed just this summer at Vail. It’s taken years of planning and months of labor coordinated between on mountain teams and industry experts - all for infrastructure that Vail skiers and riders ultimately won’t see. “I think most people will just see the guns out on the hill, the fixed locations,” says Tucholke, “but half of our project is underground in pipelines and buildings to get this stuff to where it needs to go.” 

Ultimately, all this investment and work is about the snow product. And once skiers experience this industry disrupting approach to high quality snowmaking and its impact on Vail’s skiing experience from its early opening day ever on November 15, that’s when all the work will pay off.
“It leads to a more consistent product and availability of terrain for our guests, more so than ever before.” 


Greg Johnson
Vice President of Mountain Operations
The End Result: Your Experience
November 15, 2019. It’s the earliest scheduled opening day ever at Vail Mountain, without factoring in for early season snowfall, and the first rides up Mountaintop Express Lift (#4) are met with whoops and hollers of excitement as skiers and riders below experience their first turns of the season. 

The largest snowmaking investment project in North America has made way for a revolutionary new opening sequence at Vail, giving guests access to higher-altitude terrain covered in a mix of natural snow and the highest quality man-made snow surface in the industry.

Just days earlier the din of snow guns was almost deafening at Mid-Vail as snowmakers, groomers and mountain operations teams laid the groundwork for opening day. 

“The feeling, honestly, is one of pride,” said Greg Johnson, Vice President of Mountain Operations at Vail, as he surveyed the scene. “Pride for the team and how much work has gone into this, because no one in North America has executed a project that's this big in the history of snowmaking in one summer.”

It’s an early season scenario like this year’s that the project was designed to counteract. The promising snowfall of October stalled out in November with drier skies and warmer temperatures. The weather would have upended the earlier scheduled start date in years past, but between the state-of-the-art snowmaking technology and relocation to higher elevations at Mid-Vail, a robust opening came together without a hitch.  

“We’re incredibly excited about the new terrain offerings that we're going to have for our guests, it's going to be better than ever before,” said Johnson on the Tuesday before Vail's opening. “We’re going to have the entire range of ability levels open to our guests, starting at Golden Peak for the never-evers….at Mid-Vail we're going to have great beginner trails, intermediate trails and even a couple advanced trails on natural snow” as well as services like dining and Ski School. "It's a much more versatile product than we've ever had before on opening day.”

The proof is in the product on Friday as skiers and riders are delivered from Gondola One to a snow-covered Mid-Vail. The snow surface is soft and fun, a perfect groomer day. 

And the system will continue to prove its value in the weeks and years to come, providing more reliable early-season conditions and more diverse terrain options, no matter the natural snowfall.