By Deb Everts
Thanks to a team of dedicated snowmakers, Holiday Valley Ski Resort is able to keep snow on its slopes when there is green grass showing elsewhere. As long as the temperatures are cold enough to make snow, crew members work around the clock to ensure guests have “the white stuff” to enjoy skiing and snowboarding during their stay at the resort.
Dan Aldrich, snowmaking crew chief and night shift supervisor, watches over the snowmaking operations from the control room at the base of the hill near Yodeler slope. He usually covers the midnight to 8 a.m. shift.
“It all seems to happen on the night shift when the temperatures are colder. We’re here all night long and sometimes we stay during the day. It all depends on what’s happening on the mountain,” he said. “I have a great crew and we are like family. We have to make a lot of ‘seat of the pants’ calls during the night time shift, but we get it done. In the morning when the resort opens, the slopes are ready for the guests.”
Ellicottville is Aldrich’s hometown. It’s where he grew up and went to school. Prior to attending college, he worked at Holiday Valley. After college, he returned to the resort and joined the snowmaking crew part-time during the ski season. In the warmer months, he runs a paint company.
The control room is the central brain of the operation. Aldrich said when he started snowmaking at Holiday Valley 22 years ago, there was one computer screen from where they pretty much just ran the pumps. He said they used to drive down to the pump house to see what the pressures were and, if something happened down there, they’d have to tweak it and come back up to the control room to look at the monitor.
“Before the automated system came in, there was a lot of driving around,” he said. “I about teared up the first time I saw Yodeler fire up from my cell phone because I thought about all the nights running up and down the hill.”
With the modern computerized snowmaking system, Aldrich can now see the water flows and pressures from the control room. He’s monitoring the screens, firing hundreds of automated snow guns, turning on pumps and firing compressors.
“I’m honored to be a snowmaker and to have this amazing snow system to use,” he said. “My job is to get the water online and up on the mountain to the snow guns because that’s where the ‘acre-feet’ of snow comes from.”
According to Aldrich, the term “acre-feet of snow” means one square-acre of snow that is one-foot deep. He said, on average, they cover an area the size of three football fields with a foot of snow in an hour.
Aldrich said they’ve gone from producing 4,000 gallons a minute to 8,000 gallons a minute, which they can go through pretty quickly. He said the water in the pipelines does not freeze because it’s underground below the frostline. When the guns go on, the water goes up to the surface and when they shut off, the water drains. He said a gun or drain may occasionally freeze but, other than that, the water is always moving and moving water doesn’t freeze.
Although most of the water that goes into their snowmaking system comes from Great Valley Creek at the bottom of the hill, Aldrich said Spruce Lake at the top of the mountain is a reservoir that provides a secondary water source. He said they have an 8,000 gallon a minute water capacity, which is 4,000 gallons from the creek and 4,000 gallons from the lake.
“When I first started, we had miles of hose that we would drag out and hook up to portable guns and move around manually,” he said. “We still use portable guns to fill in the gaps and areas where we don’t have automation but, for the most part, we have snow guns pretty much everywhere in the areas they are needed. And, we’ve gone to push-button starts with shorter hoses.”
Aldrich said a lot less grooming was done back then because they were moving the guns around more. Now, they basically create big piles of snow and the groomers come in and put it where it’s needed.
Experience and a two-year associate’s degree in Ski Area Technology at the State University of New York at Morrisville led him to his current position eight years ago as one of the supervisors.
“I started out as a regular snowmaker and basically put my time in, which led to this position,” he said. “You might say I started in the trenches. I still enjoy the trenches because I’m still on the mountain with the guys making good quality skiing snow for our guests. There’s really not any place I’d rather be.”