Q: How did you get your job as a snowmaker?
A: I moved here [Crested Butte, Colorado] last year and needed a way to get a free season pass.
Q: What’s your work schedule like?
A: The job lasts six or eight weeks, from November 1 through Christmas. I work four 12-hour shifts, from noon to midnight, and I get an associate season ski pass that’s good for around 15 resorts in Colorado.
Another crew does midnight to noon, so we’re making snow 24 hours a day.
Q: What do you need to do to be qualified for this job?
A: You need to be able to use power tools, be kind of handy. I’ve been a carpenter and worked on a ranch, so I was pretty well qualified.
Q: Are there any other perks besides the free ski pass?
A: We get discounted food on the mountain. We get some good pro deals, too, like on super-burly gloves and ice-climbing boots.
We don’t get ski breaks during work. The other employees do.
There is a lot of downtime. You don’t have scheduled breaks. You do about eight hours of work and spend the rest of the time reading magazines or napping. We have barbeques, that kind of thing.
Q: How many people make snow at your resort?
A: There are seven people at a time: one is the foreman, one is the controller, and five are what are called “line” snowmakers.
Q: How does snowmaking work?
A: There are underground pipes all over the mountain. We pump water from the nearby river.
One pipe has high-pressure water, the other has high-pressure air. There is a building full of pumps and compressors halfway up the mountain. The whole idea is that you shoot it up into the air so it will fall like natural snow. The air is at 500-700 p.s.i. and the water is at 100 p.s.i. Sometimes they mix inside the gun and sometimes they shoot out and the air breaks the water into small particles.
Q: That’s it? Just air and water?
A: They also use an additive called Snomax. They add it to the water in varying proportions. It’s a very tiny particle, and water will freeze around it. It will make bigger snowflakes quicker.
The goal is to pump 85 million gallons of water a season. The water comes from the East River, a tributary of the Gunnison River. My roommate works for the water plant and he says we have no water shortage. We take 2,400 gallons per minute out of the river.
Q: How does your job work, though? Like, what is a typical day? What do you do when you get there?
A: We punch in, put on our uniform, which is overalls, a vest, and a jacket. We wear motorcycle helmets for snowmobiling and because the hoses are high-pressure. There are a bunch of helmets anyone can use. One kid wears a hardhat that says “Born to Kill” on it.
We get on our snowmobiles and drive up to the control building. The snow guns are running and we check them for quality and placement. Our boss has a master plan that tells us which trail to do when. The guns blow snow in a mound 6 to 8 feet wide and 40 feet long. We make the pile taller and later the snowcats come and smooth everything out.
We check the quality of the snow. Depending on the temperature and humidity, it might be too rainy or powdery. Mostly, we make dense slush, which works well to cover up rocks, that kind of thing.
Wind is a big factor; we don’t want snow to blow into trees or into the lifts. It can kill a tree or bring down a lift.
Q: How many snow guns does it take for one resort?
A: We have 120 guns that are 30-foot towers and we raise and lower them. They have limited range. Then we have 20 guns that you can tow behind a snowmobile.
Q: Are there any hazards to this job?
A: You end up getting wet. A couple weeks ago it was minus 8 and I got sprayed twice. At times like that, it freezes before it gets wet.
If a hose breaks off from the end of a gun, like the fabric of the hose separates, the water will make the hose whip around in all directions. The couplings weigh about 2 pounds and are about the size of your fist.
Or the hose has pressurized air in it. One hundred p.s.i. shoots the metal coupling about 20 to 30 feet in the air. I saw it once from inches away. Somebody did it accidentally.
A few years ago a guy got hit in the leg and it shattered his femur. That’s why we wear helmets and some people wear knee pads.
Also, you’re driving on the mountain in the middle of the night and it’s storming or you are driving uphill through moguls and snow from snow guns. There is a chance of having the snowmobile flip over. At 30 miles per hour I’ve had to bail when I was skidding out. You have to call a snowcat to come get you.
Q: Is it embarrassing?
A: If it isn’t serious, you try to fix it yourself, but it happens to everybody. There are two snowmobile mechanics; they’ll fix it right up.
Q: What kind of training do you get?
A: Most people have been doing it for years, and you go in a group of two, so you’re with somebody who shows you the ropes. We had 10 rookies this year. You wear headlamps and give hand signals; you have to wear earplugs because it’s so loud.
It seems a lot like Alaskan crab fishing. It’s just as hard, cold, and wet, but you don’t have the danger of falling into the ocean.
Q: What kind of equipment do you use?
A: You carry a 10-inch adjustable wrench to self-arrest if you slip down the slope. A wrench, a shovel, some people carry propane torches, and big coils—like 100 feet—of hose.
Q: Are there any girls who do this job?
A: Last year, there were 29 guys and one girl. This year, there are 25 guys and five girls. One girl that I work with was just named firefighter of the year.
Q: What would you say to someone who was thinking of taking this job?
A: Make sure you’re into hard work and impervious to cold weather. Most people who do it are hard-core skiers. I work with my gloves off and you get numb fingers from handling the shovel or from the snowmobile handlebars.
Q: What do you do the rest of the season?
A: I’m a cook at a Mexican restaurant. That job is 2 to 3 in the afternoon till midnight, so I can ski during the day.
Q: How long do you think you’ll continue doing this job?
A: I’m 23 and I graduated college a few years ago. I just took the LSAT, but I’m not applying yet. I’ll do this job as long as I’m living here.