How Does Snowmaking Actually Work?

Inside the blowers–and compressor house and more–at Bear Mountain and Snow Summit.


words: Mike Basher
photos: Mike Basher and Lee Stockwell

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA IS KNOWN FOR consistently warm, sunny weather, palm tree-speckled coastline, and a robust collection of infamous surf breaks, but mountain culture has also been a staple of the region’s history for nearly a century. The area’s snow- capped peaks, like San Gorgonio and Mount Baldy, which can be seen from the beach on clear days and are just a day trip from the coast, have been drawing those seeking winter to SoCal’s pristine national forests and higher elevations since the 1930s.

In 1939, small ski clubs, which were the precursors to today’s larger resorts, dotted the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains, boasting a grand total of nine rope tows. By the turn of the century, those small clubs had evolved into full-scale resort operations, like Bear Mountain, Snow Summit, and Mountain High, and lift service had grown to fifty-three chairlifts and nine surface lifts. Snow culture had captured the inspiration of millions of people from Santa Barbara to San Diego, and by 1952, sunny, warm Southern California had more skiers per capita than any other place in the US.

The mountain ranges in Southern California are almost an anomaly. Thrust upward by massive forces of tectonic shifting, the San Bernardinos and San Gabriels serve as a barricade between the Mojave Desert to the north, which reaches beyond Bakersfield to the west and to Death Valley to the northeast, and the more humid climate of the Los Angeles Basin to the south. When these opposing climates collide during the winter, they can drop feet of snow in a matter of hours on the high peaks of this buffer zone. These powder days are special, not only because they occur in an alpine desert, but because of the unique experience they offer within a tall, open canopy of pinions and pines, where warm orange trunks tipped with rich green foliage contrast against California’s sapphire blue skies. Thanks to the arid environment, underbrush is sparse, making for wide-open tree runs. It’s an experience unlike anywhere in the world.

Some winters, though, the storms don’t come.

After World War II, there were several drought years in the Southern California and it be- came obvious that for the ski resorts there to survive, they needed a way to make up where nature was falling short. In the mid-1950s, resort engineers began tinkering with a new concept, artificial snowmaking. In 1962, after a few winters of developing various designs, pioneer Tommi Tyndall, then the general manager of Snow Summit, developed the largest snowmaking system west of the Mississippi. Eventually, this system would expand to cover every run of the resort, all fed by a mile-and-a-half-long tap directly from Big Bear Lake. The ability to create snow revolutionized business for Summit, and soon after, Bear Mountain, by providing an element of condition control. Since that fateful year, the town of Big Bear Lake has become a bustling winter hub, thanks to Tyndall’s precipitation planning,

via Bear Mountain

Of course, the magic of snowmaking isn’t as simple as spraying a hose into the air on a cold night. It takes a dedicated, well-orchestrated crew on the ground—day and night—to operate the guns and coat the trails when conditions are favorable, beginning in the fall. Behind the scenes, the preparation for opening day begins in the summer and culminates in a flurry of round-the-clock temperature and humidity checks and wind observations, all done with a boatload of experience.

Despite only being a few miles apart, Bear Mountain and Snow Summit have very different snowmaking systems which have to be operated and managed quite differently. For each mountain’s director of operations, Dan Nielsen at Bear and Chris Winslow at Summit,
this entails equal parts juggling and playing maestro of a symphony. At the heart of it all, though, water is combined with compressed air and shot out of guns that are strategically placed where coverage is needed.

The snowmaking process begins with both resorts drawing water from Big Bear Lake that is purchased from the town’s water department prior to each season. Interestingly, Bear Mountain’s feed pipe is able to transfer almost three times more volume than Summit’s, up to 4,000 gallons per minute, albeit for a shorter time. Getting all of that water to the peak of each resort means traveling over 2,000 feet in elevation and takes four 400-horsepower water pumps at the lake feeding almost a dozen water pumps located in each resort’s pump house. The pumps are individually piped into the main water line that feeds several hundred hydrants along more than twenty miles of underground pipeline that navigates the resorts’ trails. When the water lines are full, gravity tries to push literal tons of water back into the pump house, which creates an immense amount of water pressure at the base of the resort. This, of course, is with the pumps at rest. When the pumps are running, water pressure reaches a whopping 1,000 pounds per square inch (aka PSI, a measure of force) at the pump houses and 300 PSI at the peak of each resort, which is the minimum required to run the guns.

Without compressed air, all that water won’t ionize into a crystalline form and become snow after it leaves the specially designed snowgun nozzles. This is why both mountains also have separate air systems that run in chorus with the water systems, featuring a stable of 1,500-horsepower compressors that push air at 90 PSI. The air travels through a network of additional lines beneath the ground that emerges alongside each water hydrant. It’s important to note that a fluctuation of just a few PSI in the air system is the difference between making usable snow and turning a trail into a glazed donut, which is why the Bear and Summit teams monitor their systems like hawks.

Once a plan is set by BBMR’s snowmaking managers, Alex Hernandez at Bear Mountain and Tim McKelvey at Snow Summit, they keep careful watch over the wet bulb tempera- ture, a scientific chart that each snowmelier uses to correspond the local temperature at each snowgun with the relative humidity. The colder and drier it is, the more snow can be produced. It’s important to note exact local temperature because temperatures and humidity can vary all over the mountain and change rapidly, so the teams rely heavily on precise communications, swift action, and unwavering commitment to the process of snowmaking.

As weather conditions are constantly shifting, both Bear and Summit maintain an arsenal of snowguns, from state-of-the-art, computer-programmable, remotely operated fan units
to comparably archaic air/water guns, which, while not as energy efficient as their futuristic counterparts, hold a decisive advantage of being able to make snow at 39 degrees under the right conditions.

Turning on the guns can cause a local weather change, as well. According to McKelvey, when fan guns are positioned in the base area at Snow Summit, he can generally expect a twenty-percent increase in relative humidity, a situation that raises the ideal corresponding freezing temperature on his trusty wet bulb chart. In these situations, there is no substitu- tion for snowmaker experience when it comes to creating the best man-made precipitation.

Behind all of these moving parts is a massive amount of energy and power. Bear runs off of a substation from Pacific Gas and Electric with an unlimited draw capacity, but that only kicks in after 10pm. Again, more for Dan and Alex and their team to juggle, further reinforc- ing skillsets and efforts that are so integral to the snowsports we know and love, but rarely get the spotlight they deserve.

Snow Summit, on the other hand, has six 1,700-horsepower diesel generators on site dedi- cated to their snowmaking system. At full output, these generators can produce a combined 12,000 kilowatts of power—enough energy for every home in the town of Big Bear. For Chris and Tim at Snow Summit, they have an unlimited supply of electricity for their snowmaking system, but water management becomes the calculated variable. Without balancing lake water flow with retention pond capacities, they can make the snow faster than the water supply can provide, so the whole system requires near-constant attention to ensure it’s running smoothly.

At the end of the day, though, no system is perfect, and predicting the weather is like… predicting the weather, but all of the snowmaking machinations are managed and operated by immeasurable amounts of passion and experience, using the tools on hand to deal with the conditions. These guys live for this stuff and it’s not just the big opening weekend push or staying ahead of Mother Nature’s mid-season warm-ups, it’s making sure that those signature warm, sunny days at Bear Mountain and Snow Summit have plenty of snow consistently throughout the entire season.

Each year, as the spring melt-off commences and the lifts stop turning, snowboarders make their migration back down to the beach for summer activities. The sun heats Bear Mountain and Snow Summit’s snowpack, and the water that had been rushed up the moun- tains through the complex network of pressurized lines and meticulously painted on the mountainside by teams of die-hard winter fanatics slowly makes its way back into Big Bear Lake. Flowing through special drainages and spillways which have been put in place by each resort, the water is diverted right back to its source, the majority of which will repeat the cycle of covering trails in frozen form for the next winter’s enjoyment.

This article originally appeared in issue 19.2, November 2022.

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