Everyone who participates in the sports of skiing or snowboarding covets their powder days, when a bounty of new snow falls from the sky, and they can romp around in waist deep snow until their legs give out. They also know that Mother Nature can be fickle, and that sometimes a resort's snowmaking team will have to be relied upon in order for them to be able to get out on the mountain and get those turns in, because let's face it, a "bad" day of skiing is better than a good day at work. New Hampshire's Loon Mountain is well aware of the inconsistency of a New England Winter, where one day a foot of snow will fall and the next day temperatures will skyrocket; that's why they've put so much into the art of snowmaking.
The drive to Loon on December 28, 2012 was what a New England ski trip should look like. Over a foot of snow built up alongside the long, frost-heaven Route 112 that winds through New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest; bitter cold, yet flakes of white snow falling from the sky; densely wooded, snowcapped peaks on all sides; this is what makes Eastern skiing so special, and why last season was so tough for the New England faithful.
Skiers and snowboarders know that Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate with our wishes. That’s why we sacrifice old skis to Ullr and snow dance with the hopes of getting the snow to fly. A perfect example was the 2011/2012 ski season. For much of the United States, the snowfall was few and far between, with perhaps no region suffering more than the Northeast.
Minimal natural snowfall made opening terrain difficult, and had East Coast skiers salvaging whatever precious little snow they could find. After a late-February storm looked like it had changed the season around, a mid-March heat wave hit the region, causing many ski resorts to close early, and in effect, put the season out of its misery.
Which ski areas survived the big thaw? Loon Mountain in Lincoln, New Hampshire did. Fortunately for Loon and its faithful, the resort has a pretty extensive fallback for when Mother Nature becomes a little stingy, thanks to a diehard commitment to snowmaking. The man at the head of the snowmaking operation is Ken Mack, whose family has been involved in the operation of the mountain since 1960, two years prior to Loon’s opening.
“Everyone in my family has worked here at one time or another, even if it was just for a season or two,” Mack said. “My Grandfather worked here since its inception, as a matter of fact two years prior to opening.”
Ken’s Grandfather helped cut the ski area into the mountain before spending his final 20 years of service grooming those same slopes every night. “I worked with him, I groomed with him and it was a real treat,” Mack added. “I don’t think many grandkids get to do that, so it was kind of fun to work alongside him and learn from him.”
Mack’s mother was also the Ski School Supervisor, allowing Ken to use Loon as his personal playground during his youth. His father worked at the mountain for a few years and his Uncle still works there as the grooming supervisor of the midnight shift. You could say that mountain operations at Loon are coursing through the Mack family veins.
Although, in the eyes of snowsports enthusiasts, last year wasn’t ideal in terms of natural snowfall, it was a great year to be a snowmaker. “It was a good year for snowmaking,” Mack said. “We are in demand, we’re very busy and appreciated, which is very nice.”
The persistent freeze-thaw cycle that occurred last year resulted in Ken Mack and his crew having to repeatedly resurface the terrain with manmade snow, just to create a semblance of what the natural stuff feels like.
“In 48 hours we can resurface most of our terrain on Loon here. Every time we go through that freeze-thaw cycle, in a year like last year, we’re doing that,” Mack explained. “Walking Boss, a very popular trail up on North Peak, we went to that trail 32 times, so we opened it and resurfaced it 31 more times.”
The key to a successful ski season for any ski resort lies in the build up of a significant base layer of snow. Without a solid base layer, skiing can’t happen, no matter where you are. For Loon Mountain, that was never truer than last season.
“We have to build that base up to last into April,” Mack explained. “Last year, we built up such a base that the first or second week of March, when it was 80 degrees, everyone else was closing around us. We still stayed open, we still had a 18 to 24 inch base.”
The snowmaking team has to put in long hours to fulfill the snow guarantee that Loon makes to their guests. “We work seven days a week, 24 hours a day. We work 12 hour shifts, noon to midnight, midnight to noon,” Mack said. “The snowmakers work four days on, three days off.”
Things are looking up for the 2012/2013 ski season, with Loon and other Eastern resorts benefitting from a great December in terms of natural snowfall. As I sat down with Ken Mack, over a foot of snow had just fallen upon Loon Mountain, providing skiers and riders with some great December powder turns.
That doesn’t mean the work is done for Mack and his snowmaking team; they’re still working behind the scenes to make sure that base lasts until April. “We can pretty much stay out of the way,” Mack said. “We don’t use snowmobiles, we’re all on foot; ride the chairlifts, do our work, try to be neither seen nor heard.”
While the snowmaking team has an obligation to Loon’s season pass holders, real estate owners and visitors’, their dedication to quality snow may come from inside. Most of the snowmaking team are themselves skiers and riders. Much of their free time is spent skiing or snowboarding, forging a bond with the mountain that motivates their hard work. “Many of them are outdoor enthusiasts: snowboarders, skiers, tele-skiers,” Mack said. “In their off-time they’re skiing or snowboarding.”
Maybe that’s what makes New England skiing so special—it’s one big family of skiers. Whether it’s Loon’s snowmaking team, the Mack family, that bearded New England telemarker you see blasting the steeps or a little kid taking their first turns on skis, everyone is united in one common trait: A love for skiing and a love for snow.