Making snow, Red River-style

Snow guns spread the white stuff on Red river ski & Summer Area’s novice – intermediate slopes. (Chronicle file photo)

A blanket of clouds heavy with the promise of snow started rolling over Red River the Thursday before Thanksgiving. Harry Blunden, donned in a T-shirt and sunglasses, started his trek up the mountain. In that last hour of sunlight in the valley, no snow fell from the sky. No matter. Blunden knew what to do: start making it himself.

From sundown to sunup, mountain slopes like those at Red River Ski & Summer Area are filled with plumes of crystalline snow — for skiers, a sight as promising as the Bible’s prophetic pillars of cloud and fire.

A good base of man-made snow means ski areas can open sooner and stay open longer than natural conditions allow. Over several weeks, snowmakers have created a skiable slope even before Mother Nature has dropped her first powder.

The Taos News caught up with Blunden the week before Red River Ski & Summer Area’s opening day (Nov. 22) to see how snow gets made Red River-style.

It takes a certain kind of person to be a professional snowmaker like Blunden.

For one, you really have to love snow. And he really does.

Blunden is part of the “kiwi crew” at Red River, a group of guys from New Zealand who come to the Land of Enchantment from October to February every year to ski and make snow before heading back to their hemisphere to do the same thing.

Blunden hails from the small town of Methven on the South Island of New Zealand. But with fewer than 2,000 people, it’s still bigger than Red River.

The connection between the two places is older than anyone can remember. Blunden has made the snowmaking journey to Red River for the past five years. His crew is small, just two other New Zealanders and one American — “we’ve trained him well,” he said.

Snowmaking starts up about a week before Halloween, roughly one month before the ski area’s opening day.

Even though snowmakers are trying to best Mother Nature, they still rely on the particularities of the weather. The air has to be at least 27.5 degrees Fahrenheit with low humidity. Modern “PoleCats,” as one of the most popular brands of snowmakers are called, have their own built-in weather stations so snowmakers don’t miss out on ideal but isolated conditions.

Snow guns can cost tens of thousands of dollars for a single machine. Some are anchored in place (background) while others are on wheels so snow makers can haul them — laboriously — to bare spots around the mountain. (Courtesy Photo)

Snowmaking is a given at most commercial ski areas these days. On the edges of mountain slopes are “guns” or “cannons,” hulking machines that look a lot like jet engines, the technology that spawned snowmaking in the years after World War II. When fired up, the guns create snow out of high-pressure air and water. Built-in fans throw snow in mounds on ski runs.

At its core, snowmaking is combining compressed air and water. It may sound simple, but as Blunden explained, “there’s a bit of a knack to it.”

The snowmaking system that spans the mountain pumps water from the ponds at the base of the ski area. From the “Snowflake Factory” near Broadway Station, water is “boosted to any of our 102 snow guns as needed,” according to the Red River Ski & Summer Area website. During a good night, Red River’s snowmaking equipment can turn a million gallons of water into mounds of snow.

In the center of each snow gun is an all-important piece of equipment: the nucleator.

“The nucleator mixes the air from the top and the water from the bottom. This is where the science fits in. It creates that first particle you need to get water to freeze. Once it starts the crystals forming, you get snow. Without that, you’ll just make rain,” Blunden said.

“You want a nice middle ground,” he said. “If you’re flowing too much water, snow is slushy and turns to ice. If there’s not enough water, your snow will be dry and you won’t make much of it.”

Though more and more snowmaking machines are automated, they don’t have the smarts of artificial intelligence. It’s up to Blunden’s team, working in 12-hour shifts, to finesse the system.

“There’s no big green button that says ‘on.’ We still have to check all of them,” he said.

Red River has 63 runs, with over 85 percent of the mountain equipped with the infrastructure for snowmaking. That makes it a physically demanding job — hauling water hoses all over the mountain in cold temperatures and high winds. As Blunden said, it’s also a dangerous job. “If you’re not paying attention, you’ll come to grief real fast,” he said.

The final steps of snowmaking is the grooming: smoothing out the huge mounds, or whales, into a flat base and then tilling the snow until it’s fluffy and skiable.

But how does Blunden know when the snow is just right?

“You got to test your own product,” he said.

When Blunden and the two other guys from New Zealand head out of Red River in February, they make their way back to Mt. Hutt, the ski area near his hometown.

Blunden may be surrounded by winter weather all year long, but he tries to get some off-time, he said, to “go find some snow we didn’t make and play in that.”

— Cody Hooks,