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Early season blast of cold is music to the ears of many West Michigan ski resorts

Bittersweet has about 210 snow guns positioned on towers and on the ground across their mountain. (WWMT/Will Haenni)
Bittersweet has about 210 snow guns positioned on towers and on the ground across their mountain. (WWMT/Will Haenni)
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A much colder air mass looks to arrive early in the week after Nov. 10, 2019, and this news may be a bit depressing to some, but for West Michigan skiers the cold temperatures are welcomed with open arms.

Victor Gayheart, general manager of Bittersweet Ski Resort, said with projected temperatures in the the teens, they're planning on firing up the snow makers.

"We were just talking last week, there's no way that three years in a row that we're going to open in middle November." Gayheart said. "Well, guess what? We were wrong."

Bittersweet Ski Resort closed in late March 2019 after one of their longest seasons ever. During the off-season they've done renovations to the lodge, which included expanding the ski shop and office and putting in a mostly glass exterior on the building's slope facing side. They've also added a surface conveyor belt lift and expanded one of their runs with a lengthened chairlift.

Now, it's crunch time to get the slopes ready for snow. In the start of the 2019-2020 ski season, crews are hoping to open the lifts up for skiers possibly by mid-November.

"I think it might be earlier than last year, and that's three years in a row, so it's a big deal," Gayheart said.

Gayheart said their hope is to always open before Thanksgiving weekend, but it all depends on the weather. He recalled one year the resort didn't open until early January due to lack of cold air.

Expected highs in the upper 20s and lows in the teens translates to temperatures running 20 to 25 degrees colder than our 30-year averages. After temperatures drop below freezing Nov. 10, they're expected to stay below 32 through Wednesday, Nov. 13. Overnight lows in the teens both Monday and Tuesday night provide ski resorts an opportunity to make artificial snow for the slopes.

"It looks like Sunday and Monday night's gonna be cold, so we're planning on opening probably next Wednesday, Thursday," Gayheart said.

He said they'll target their three main runs and hopefully have them ready for skiers and snowboarders.

How much man-made snow the resort is able to make often dictates how long they're able to open for business. More base snow helps them get through warm spells or periods with rain throughout the winter.

How the snow guns work

Over 200 snow guns on the ground and towers across the Bittersweet Ski Area make the winter magic happen throughout the cold season.

Each gun operates with a large fan on the inside, which serves to launch the snow up and away from the machine. Around the drum's opening itself, there's a ring of spray nozzles that spit out water. Depending on how cold it is, more or less nozzles can be opened during operation.

The spray ring is only part of the equation, however. At the center of the machine, between the fan and the opening, there's a part called a nucleator. Compressed air and water shoot out of this small opening. The drop in pressure and temperature causes tiny little ice crystals to form. These serve as the seeding nuclei which get sprayed into the cold water and eventually turns into snow.

With the large water resources needed to produce all that snow, a pond at the resort's base feeds the thousands of feet of water piping beneath the ski area.

Gayheart said the guns they use are patented and made by the resort, but many of their parts are purchased from Snow Machines Incorporated, a Midland, Michigan based snow machine manufacturer and industry leader.

He looked at one snow gun and called it "Old Faithful."

"This gun right here, on a 10 degree night, low humidity, will make a pile probably 50 feet out there will make a pile eight feet wide, probably six feet high in a 10 hour period," he said.

Large piles of snow then are moved and groomed to make the skiing and snowboard runs that brings enthusiasts back year after year.

The perfect snow making ingredients

The tools for making snow might not be all that complex on paper, but the machines require ideal conditions for making the best powder.

"I think the perfect condition is 10 degrees, no humidity," Gayheart said. "Of course if it's colder than that you can make more snow, but things start to freeze and you have a lot of problems."

When the air is below zero, the snow machines can make quite a bit of snow very efficiently, but there's a catch. At such cold temperatures, the water lines require much more maintenance and monitoring by crew members because things freeze up.

More modern advancements in the snow making industry have made it possible to make snow with temperatures closer to the the freezing mark, but not much warmer than the upper 20s.

The reason why the amount of moisture in the air is important is because the drier the air, the faster the snowflakes will form. This is due to evaporative cooling, the same principle that makes you chilly when you leave your steamed up bathroom after a shower.

Other West Michigan ski areas

Timber Ridge Ski Area was preparing for their 58th season. General Manager Amy Schrab said her staff was planning on making snow starting Monday. Schrab said they'll be experimenting with four new state of the art snow guns able to produce snow at warmer temperatures. While Schrab said they probably wouldn't open next week, she said their goal was to have their lifts running by Thanksgiving weekend.

An employee at Swiss Valley Ski and Snowboard Area in Jones, Michigan, said they're not likely to open this early in the season. As a smaller resort, their main goal is to have their slopes open sometime in December before the holiday rush.

Cannonsburg Ski Area, in Cannon Township, planned on firing up their snow makers starting Thursday night, Nov. 11. Director of marketing Danielle Musto said their team will be trying to blow as much snow as possible into early next week to try and build their base, but didn't think they'd open until possibly later in the month.

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