RIPTON —Mike Hussey, director of the Rikert Ski Touring Center near here, reaches down and paws at the light, powdery snow, quickly exposing blades of dormant green grass. The natural snow here is 7 or 8 inches deep. Nearby, on Rikert’s 5-kilometer race course, Hussey scrapes away at the surface of a much denser snow, up to 16 inches deep.
“We’re not going to get to the bottom,” he says.
This deeper, denser snow is man made, blown out of snow guns using a mixture of water and compressed air, and putting Rikert among a small, select group of Nordic ski areas making snow. Alpine ski areas, by contrast, have been making snow for decades.
“Forty years ago, the alpine people said, look, Mother Nature is not doing it for us, we have to make snow,” Hussey said. “Nordic has always been about going through the woods outside your back door. It’s known as a granola sport.’’
Cross-country is also a relatively inexpensive sport, with day passes at Rikert going for $17. That makes it hard to support the economics of snow making, which are daunting. Rikert’s system to cover 5 kilometers of trail cost $800,000.
“To implement a reasonably sized snow making system on a fairly low revenue basis is hard to do,” Hussey said. “We were lucky enough to have some donors, and we’re owned by Middlebury College.”
Hussey is quick to point out, however, that the college required the same kind of fiscal analysis a bank would have required for such a large investment.
“They’re not giving money away,” he said. “It still has to be a good investment.”
Snow making at Rikert began in January 2013, making this the first full year the center has had this capability. It’s made a huge difference, says Hussey, who formerly worked at HKD Snowmakers in Natick, Mass., the company that sold snow guns to Rikert.
“We’re in our 81st day of operation. We opened Nov. 16, a month earlier than ever before,” Hussey said this week.
Not only that, the ski area has only been closed only four days all season, and two of those days were Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“We closed for the ice storm, and one day it was raining so hard nobody was here anyway so we decided to go home,” Hussey said. “Other than that we’ve been open and skiing.”
Without snow making, Hussey says, Rikert would have been open just seven or eight days between November and February.
“Our Nordic center would have been opened a week instead of 80 days,” he said. “That’s entirely thanks to snow making.”
Not only that, but Hussey got his ski area open during the most critical part of the ski season —the early part, before Thanksgiving.
“People still expect winter to begin in November and end in March. That’s when people get excited about skiing,” he said. “By the time we get to April, they’re waxing their boats and polishing their golf clubs.”
Yet, Nordic areas around the country are not rushing to install water and air lines, for the reasons Hussey stated. Chris Frado, executive director of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association in Winchester, N.H. estimates only about two dozen Nordic centers in North America have snow making capabilities, including sites in Utah and Alberta that installed the systems when they built Olympic venues.
Frado explains the difference between alpine and Nordic snow making installations, beyond the economics.
“We have different challenges with a snow making installation,” Frado said. “We’re not talking a straight shot of a big chunk of ski slope. We have the trails that wind through the woods over acres and acres. It’s more problematic for us.”
Nordic areas that do have snow making have it on a portion of their trail system, like Rikert does. It could be a loop, Frado says, or an instruction area, a portion of ground in front of the lodge.
“It’s a more selective installation than what you see at a downhill ski area,” Frado said.
Vermont has four Nordic ski areas beside Rikert that make snow, according to Frado: Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, The Mountain Top Inn &Resort in Chittenden, Craftsbury Outdoor Center in Craftsbury Common, and Grafton Ponds Outdoor Center in Grafton.
“It is a very major commitment
to do this and then once you make the financial commitment, it’s not labor free,” Frado said. “It is a labor intensive job. You’re talking people working at night. Most of the cross country operations are still relatively small businesses.”Back at Rikert, Hussey points out the 20-foot high snow guns towering over the open field next to the rental center. These are the same guns you might see at an alpine ski area.
“We turn those on and let them rip,” Hussey said.
That approach doesn’t work when it comes to the 5 kilometer loop where Rikert has the balance of its snow making capability installed. Those guns, sitting nearby, are shorter, at 10 feet high, and are mounted on sleds so they can be maneuvered onto the trail. They’re not made specifically for Nordic applications, but they have a narrow head that sprays a tighter plume than the big guns. They were made primarily for condo developments on the mountainside.
“They’re designed for snow making in narrow terrain,” said Ian Jarrett, vice president of HKD Snowmakers. “We had Nordic in our minds, but also real estate access in ski areas. When you pay for a ski-in ski-out condo it’s tough when you have to walk through the mud.”
Hussey worked with Jarrett for 20 years at HKD before he left to run Rikert. He said he thought about taking the job for a “nanosecond” after Middlebury College offered it to him in 2010. Hussey is a former All-American cross country ski racer at the University of New Hampshire.
“I saw them as very applicable to Nordic trails,” Hussey says of the HKD guns for narrow terrain.
It takes Hussey and his crew eight to 10 hours to make enough snow for one-half kilometer of trail, using 250 gallons of water per minute. The water comes from a 1920s-era reservoir that used to supply Middlebury College, but became available when the college tapped into a newer reservoir. The pipeline from the old reservoir runs straight through Rikert, and after getting all the necessary regulatory approvals, Hussey tapped into it.
The water goes into a small pond next to the pump house, where a 75-horsepower vertical pump pushes the water out to the lines feeding the field by the rental center and the 5 kilometer race course.
“At an alpine area, that would be a 400-horsepower pump, and there would be four or five of them lined up,” Hussey says, pointing to Rikert’s pump. “We’re just a teeny little system.”
The air compressor for the snow making system is about a quarter-mile from the pump house, and is diesel powered. Hussey hopes to consolidate it into the pump house next summer, and switch to an electric compressor.
Rikert’s snow making system runs at about 400 pounds per square inch of water pressure, which means the pond is depleted in 16 to 24 hours at the fill rate approved by the state. That’s a problem, especially since snow making is limited to days when the temperature is 28 degrees Fahrenheit or less.
“We have start-stop, start-stop,” Hussey said. “If we have a three day opportunity to make snow, we’re missing a day to a day and a half.”
The best way to fix the problem, Hussey says, is to put a pond somewhere in line with the reservoir that would hold 4 million gallons of water. Three million gallons would be for snow making and the remaining 1 million would be for the aquatic life in the new pond.
“It should take us 200 hours of operating time to cover the system,” Hussey said. “With a 200-hour window of opportunity, boom, we could get it done.”
The snow making system on Rikert’s 5 kilometer loop has also allowed Hussey to go after ski races. Last year, he got the NCAA championships, thanks to the snow making system.
“If you plan on holding races, no one is going to commit today if you can’t guarantee you’ll have some terrain open,” Ian Jarrett said. “Mike is very aware of that. He had the NCAAs. They wouldn’t have been able to hold it if they didn’t put snow making in.”
Hussey plans to bid for other national level and regional level races. He knows he will have to build Rikert’s reputation to be considered alongside other Nordic areas that have been hosting such events for years.
“If it’s a national level event you’re bidding four years out,” Hussey said. “They want to know when they bring the event here in four years they’re not going to have to move it at the last minute because there’s no snow.”
Ian Jarrett figures snow making for Nordic areas will be remain a small piece of HKD’s business, but an important piece.“Whether they’re alpine or Nordic, the more ski areas we can have, large or small, that reliably can provide snow to the public, we’re all better off,” Jarrett said. “We look at all ski areas the same. Everybody’s objective is the same —to open their facility with snow.”