A skating rink doesn’t just happen with the snap of a finger. Everyone knows that someone waters the ice during the night in order for it to be smooth the next day.
Many people think that the slopes they ski on or snowboard down make themselves; that enough snow falls to have them ready by December. However, this is not true: most of the snow on a ski mountain is created from scratch. Sometimes at the beginning of the season, all of the snow is artificial. If you’re a ski enthusiast, you probably already know this. However, you probably don’t know how hard it is to make.
Some people are too often forgotten. Workers behind the scenes who are rarely seen, but make everything possible. They’re called the snowmakers.
Daniel Blais is one of those who know snow like the back of their hand. He has been working on the slopes since the age of 13. Having worked on several mountains, Dan is now the director of operations at Mont Cascade in Gatineau. If you mention his name to skiers in the Outaouais, the Massif de Charlevoix or the Mont-Blanc, everyone will tell you the same thing: snowmaking is more than just his cup of tea.
1–CREATING SNOW 101
"Snow is the base of a mountain. Without it, nothing can be done."
“Snow is the base of a mountain,” Dan says. “Without it, nothing can be done.” Whether the ski lift works perfectly, the cafeteria has a 3-star Michelin rating or the snow park has the best equipment in the country, a ski resort without snow is completely useless.
Snowmaking is generally done from November 15 to January 31. It’s important to know that there is nothing simple about the operation. Dedication and many other elements are required to have quality snow. “I want the conditions to be perfect. I’m really rigorous and demanding on that,” said Dan.
There are two teams that complement each other: one day shift and one night shift. “During the day, the work is more manual. We’ll make sure the night guys don’t have to move any cannons. At night, we do the majority of snowmaking because it’s colder.”
Snowmaking works this way: water and air are sent from the bottom to the top of the mountain using a line, pumps and compressors. Once at the top, the water and air are sent to the cannons through different hoses. The water is then separated into fine droplets to encourage crystallization. Once in the air, the droplets freeze and turn into mini ice pellets before hitting the ground.
Once finished, it’s the groomer’s turn. This gigantic machine first crushes the snow to make it even finer, then compacts it and finally shapes the slope.
It seems pretty simple, but it isn’t. There are a lot of things that need to be taken into account and that are essential to the success of the process. First of all, the wind direction is fundamental. As Dan says, “You can’t make snow when the wind is against you, it’s impossible.” If the wind changes direction, which is common when it gets dark, the cannons have to be moved and redirected.
Next, the team must check that there are no leaks in the pipes and hoses. The cannons also require special attention during the operation. Air must circulate normally through them and snow accumulation must be removed as the snowmaking progresses.
However, the most important thing is the water line. At all times, the team must ensure that the water flow is adequate for the number of cannons in place, because if there are too many or too few, the line can freeze. That’s what every snowmaker dreads.
2 – Line freeze: a snowmaker’s pet peeve
Not a lot can give a snowmaker nightmares. There’s the lack of electricity due to strong winds, falling trees, but most of all: a line freeze. “If that freezes, you’re in trouble,” warns Dan. Of course, without water, it’s pretty hard to get snow. Luckily, every problem has a solution, but solving a line freeze is far from easy.
“First of all, you need to find where the pipe is frozen. Once it’s done, the valve that is closest to the freeze needs to be opened so that water can flow out. After that, the pipe is heated up with 20 pounds blowtorches that project 150,000 BTU flames. You keep on going one valve after the other until the line is completely defrosted. It can take two, four, even six hours, it all depends.” says Dan. “It doesn’t happen often. When you anticipate your water flow and check your drains, there’s no problem. When you don’t, that’s when you get a problem.”
3 – It’s not for everybody
“Snowmaking is the most difficult job on a mountain,” says Dan with a confident tone. To do this job, you really have to be cut out for it. And people who do snowmaking all their lives are quite rare, according to him.
A snowmaking shift is 12 hours. A snowmaker can work up to four or five days in a row. Add to that the freezing temperatures, physical exertion and fatigue, and it’s easy to see why this job is so hard. “You move cannons. You haul pipes. You shift things around. You work with water, so you get wet. You have to change your clothes. You come back outside. You get tired, too. So, 12 hours when someone gives their everything is difficult. That’s why, when someone has been working for four or five days, between 48 and 60 hours, we try to give them a break.”
"When it’s cold, you work. When it gets to be -5 and below, that's when you get your time off. That’s the way they build their schedules."
The work schedule is fairly simple, but is synced with nature’s whims. “You never know when you’re going to be off. When it’s cold, you work. When it gets to be -5 and below, that's when you get your time off. That’s the way they build their schedules,” explains Dan.
On top of the fatigue that builds up, there are also injuries. Snowmakers are not threatened by frostbite, but rather hand injuries. “We have chapped fingers because of the water. Our hands are cracked all over. We have to put cream on and sometimes it’s hard just touching things because our hands hurt. I’ve been resting for two days now and I’m just starting to feel better. When you’re doing it all the time, it’s harder to heal.”
Given the conditions and job description, there are only a handful of individuals who choose to work in this field. “You really have to like being outdoors, not be afraid of the cold and be hard on your body,” says Dan.
Of course, with the harshness of the job, hiring is a bit of a hassle. “It’s not because no one tries. We’ve tried people of all ages, people who were older, as well as 18, 19 and 20 year olds, but people find it too physically demanding. And since people don’t stay for long, the training never ends.”
4 – Unique benefits
After having looked into the trade, one might wonder about the perks of doing this job. Despite the energy it requires, there are many benefits that come with it. However, they vary depending on the shift.
Living at more normal hours is a great perk for the day guys. Every morning and late afternoon, they have a front row seat to admire the sun in all its glory. “A big part of the paycheque is sunrises and sunsets. How many pictures I’ve taken! How many I’ve seen! It’s really hard to beat. The night guys don’t see that.”
On the other side, there are also those who are night owls: the night workers. From 2000 to 2001, Dan was a night supervisor at Mont-Blanc. He also did a few nights recently to oversee the operations at Mont Cascades.
The biggest advantage of working at night is the peace and quiet that comes with it. “The silence of the night. The whistling of the cannons. The fans. No one to disturb you. The stars. The lights of the city in the distance. I would almost say it’s enjoyable. I enjoyed it like no other,” Dan tells us. At night, a whole new life begins. “From deer to foxes, you’re around all sorts of little critters that you don’t see during the day because they’re sleeping.”
It might sound strange, but working at night also leads to better sleep. Dan explains, “First of all, you have to be able to sleep during the day. But when you work at night, you sleep better. That’s mostly because you know that when you get off at 7 am, you go to sleep. Working days, when you finish at 7 pm, you do things: you eat, you listen to the TV, you have a beer and oops, it’s midnight. Since you get up at 5 am, your sleeping time is a lot shorter than the guys at night. How many times did it happen to me when I was younger to go to bed at 2 in the morning when I had to get up at 5:30 am? I was able to do it then, but I can’t do that anymore.”
The last perk of the night workers is that after having snowed the slopes all night long, you are the first one to go down them in the morning. “When the slopes open, you’re there to slide down the powder snow. That’s worth a lot.”
5 – Eluding the cold
To stay outside for over 10 hours, you must be well dressed. “Having two or three layers is important. That way, if you sweat, only the first coat is soaked,” says Dan.
The secret is to have a lot of the same pieces. Being a snowmaker is similar to being a model. In both cases, you have to change clothes regularly. “Guys will often change their socks two or three times per shift. They also have two pairs of boots. They have three pairs of gloves and change them about every hour, because we work in the water. Fortunately, you can put them near the compressors and they dry very quickly.”
6 – Those to whom much is owed
Artificial snow is temperamental. Offering optimal sliding conditions takes a dedication similar to that of a mother. “Sometimes I’d like to take an unsatisfied customer and ask them to spend two days with me. Come and find out what it’s all about,” Dan admits.
To be a snowmaker, you have to not be afraid of the cold and even less of the word “work”. Not many people would take the job. And that’s what makes them so valuable.
In the end, there’s one thing that unites them all: they’re passionate people.
When Dan is asked if he sees himself doing this forever, his answer is “I’m a passionate person. I haven't had a day off in the last 30 days. There are nights when I don’t sleep. I’m here and thinking about what we could do to improve our slopes. Even if I find it hard at the end of the season, I still like it. The only thing that would stop me would be to not be able to go out on the field and to be told that I’d have to stay in my office. I might give up the job then.”