I confess, I'm not really a skier. So I'd always thought, naively, that the snow at ski resorts was mostly a gift from nature.
Not so, said Michael Gilardi, the compressor house operator at Snowshoe Mountain. "What we do is a lot better than natural," he informed our behind-the-scenes tour of the resort. We'd stopped at the Snowshoe compressor house to get an up-close-and-personal look at the snow-making and grooming operations at the Mid-Atlantic region's most popular ski resort. It was the highlight of our one-hour, after-dark snowcat tour of the mountain.
Gilardi, sitting in front of three computer screens showing images of compressors and all sorts of data I couldn't understand, boasted that in the battle between humans and nature, humans had easily won.
"Natural is air," he said of the powdery snow that drops on us every once in a while. "What we make is more resilient for skiing."
With that, he shattered my frozen bubble.
At Snowshoe, snow-making is serious business, so much so that Dave Huber, director of mountain operations, holds court at the Depot in the Village at Snowshoe Mountain most Saturday evenings to talk to visitors about the process. The goal of the seminar, he said, is to "educate guests on everything that goes into putting the product on the hill."
First time I'd heard snow referred to as a product.
About 150 snow guns are scattered around the mountain, churning out snow, Huber said. And every night, several groomers make sure that the slopes are nice and smooth for skiers by morning. The snow-making plan changes from year to year, and some months are busier than others, depending on weather conditions. In December, for instance, Huber's team made snow every day, 24 hours a day.
"It's important for me and my staff to get feedback from the guests," he said to the eight people standing or sitting on couches listening to him on a recent Saturday.
Steve Rogers, a Richmond resident who has been skiing at Snowshoe since the 1970s, had plenty of feedback. "Expectations are high," he said to Huber.
After his lecture, Huber invited us outside to see one of the snow guns. Three of us braved the nearly face-splitting gusts of wind for the show and tell. We stared at the big yellow cannon-like machine as Huber pointed to its parts and explained what each one did. Unfortunately, I could barely hear him over the howl of the wind.
I much preferred learning about the snow-making operations from the heated cab of the tank-like groomer known as the snowcat. Our guide was Corrie Bruce, who pointed out that Snowshoe was experiencing its coldest winter since the early 1990s. On this particular night, it felt like 30 degrees below zero with the wind.
"I've never been so happy to be in the cat," Corrie said as we loaded up. I couldn't agree with her more.
I gave up my front-row seat to 4-year-old Jonathan Eckert, who was about the only other person who knew less about skiing than I did. ("What's that?" he asked Corrie at one point. "That's a ski lift," she replied.)
We crawled slowly up and down the ski trails, beneath the lifts and alongside the condos as Corrie pointed out interesting facts about the mountain. "Do you know where we get our snow?" she asked Jonathan.
He shook his head no. "From Shavers Lake," Corrie said. "It never runs out of water. "
The next day, I decided to forgo the comforts of heated transportation for a snowmobile. I opted against the fast-paced Daytime Backcountry Adventure Tour, which requires previous experience, for the Daytime Backcountry Family Tour. New this year, the Family Tour permits adults and children to ride as passengers. Because I was alone, I would have to be a driver. But that was okay, because the Family Tour moves at a slower pace for beginners.
After signing a waiver, which jangled my nerves a bit, I sat down for an orientation, which jangled my nerves a lot.
"Don't hit the brake too hard," instructed Robbie Waterman, our trainer. "You can spin a snowmobile."
I had visions of spinning down the mountain out of control. But then I looked over at the others. There were a couple of kids who looked no older than 10. If they could do it, well. . . .
We started out slowly, driving through trails lined with snow-capped trees. The snow was bumpy and you had to hit the gas to get through it. As we picked up speed, there were more bumps, or "whoop-dee-dos," as Robbie called them. It felt almost like riding a galloping horse. The farther and faster we went, the warmer I started to feel and the more comfortable I got.
By the time our two hours were up, I was actually sad for the ride to be over. I looked back at the tracks we'd cut into the snow.
The groomers would have some work to do.