Snow is our most important product.
Although Mother Nature kicks in an average of 160" to 170" of natural snow every winter, storms can be erratic, so Cannon like almost every ski area in the east, has the ability to provide excellent snow surfaces whether the storms come or not.
There are two processes to think about when it comes to the quality of the snow; snowmaking and grooming. Both are essential to consistent, high quality surface conditions. You are likely to see snowmaking in operation at any hour, especially during the early part of the season, but the grooming team does their work at night.
MAKING SNOW - A Modern Marvel
In order to make snow, cold air, and a good supply of water and power are vital. Because of our high elevation, the mountain typically has lower temperatures than surrounding areas. Temperatures typically drop by 3-5 degrees per thousand feet of elevation, so with a base at 1900 feet, and the ski area summit at 4080, it is often 15-20 degrees colder on the upper mountain than in the town of Franconia, over 3000 feet below. High elevation can occasionally produce temperature inversions, with temperatures rising as elevation is gained, so our snowmaking team has to constantly monitor conditions to make snow where it is most productive.
Water - A Key Ingredient
Cannon uses water from Echo Lake, which is largely spring fed and very clean. The water in the lake is generally replenished as quickly as we can pump it out, even though we may be taking more than 3000 gallons per minute from the lake. In the fall of 2008, we added another pump to the system, which increased our capacity to around 3800 gallons per minute!
The water is pumped through a network of 16 miles of pipes that run along the sides, or underneath Cannon’s trails and slopes. A series of small buildings around the mountain contain valves that allow the water to be sent only to the areas where we wish to make snow. Because of the elevation difference of over 2000 feet between the lake and the summit, a booster pump is located in a small building at an elevation of around 3400 feet. This is needed to ensure a strong flow of water to the highest elevations. Along the edges of trails are hydrants. The hydrants are in pairs; one for water and one for compressed air. The air is supplied by compressors which supply air to a matching network of 16 miles of pipe alongside the water lines.
Snow Guns - Turning Water into White
Cannon Mountain uses 3 types of snowmaking guns; fan guns, tower guns, and the more traditional land guns. Each has advantages and disadvantages, depending on the type of terrain that is to be covered. Fan guns are more suited to larger, open slopes, towers are used more in medium to wide trails, while land guns are the best choice for narrower trails. It is important that a constant watch is kept on the guns to ensure that the machine made snow is landing on the trails, not on the trees, since machine made snow is dense, and can easily snap trees and branches.
The principle of snowmaking is simple - water is atomized through special nozzles and pressure, and forced high up into the air. The atomized drops freeze as they float down toward the ground. Picture an enormous, and extremely powerful spray bottle, and you won’t be far from the idea. Although the principle is simple, there are many variations.
Cannon uses Turbocrystal fan guns to make snow in the base area, and on open slopes around Tuckerbrook, and in open areas around the base of the Zoomer slopes. These guns have 1 large water nozzle in the center, but use no compressed air. The push of air is provided by a large fan, located behind the nozzle. Fan guns can make enormous quantities of snow over a large area, but are not well suited for narrow areas.
Land & Tower Types
Land based guns and towers use essentially the same principle- water is fed to the chamber behind the nozzle, and is atomized as it is forced out of the gun by compressed air. Land based guns can be aimed at very specific areas, but need to be constantly adjusted for direction. The tower guns simply take the land based nozzle and shoot it up as much as 30 feet off the ground. This allows for more time for the atomized water droplets to freeze, and allows the snow to fall over a larger area.
Humans - They Make the Difference
Even with the best snowmaking equipment available, our snow quality and production falls on the shoulders of our snowmaking team. They work in extreme conditions day and night; they get wet, cold and tired. And they make all the difference.
Whatever snowmaking method is used, the snowmaking team has to be constantly checking guns to allow for changes in wind, temperature and humidity. Teams make regular runs to be sure that the most important product we have is the right consistency, and landing where we want it. Another member of the team is on duty at the pumphouse at Echo Lake, monitoring water pumping, and making checks on air pressure. If the air pressure falls too low, some guns may have to be shut down to keep pressure high for the remainder. Colder temperatures allow more water to be fed through the nozzles. The more water, the less air is needed. In very cold temperatures, the pumping capacity will be reached and no more guns can be added. Warmer temperatures require more air, and can handle less water, so in warmer temperatures, the limit is based on the amount of compressed air available.
Machine made snow may be made in large piles, particularly in the early season in order to build a good solid base, or may be spread out more.
This is where to second, equally vital part of the effort comes into play.
We sleep, they work. We wake up and mess up their work. They come back and do it again.
Cannon’s grooming fleet is out on the mountain every night of the winter season. A groomer is basically just a large tractor, with a front blade and usually a tiller, which is mounted behind the tractor. Four Prinoth tractors are on the mountain in two shifts, starting at 4pm, and working until just before the lifts start to load in the morning. The basic functions of the groomer are to smooth out the snow, distribute it evenly, and provide a consistent surface for skiing and riding.
Skiers and riders create uneven surfaces, with troughs and small mounds. These mounds, if left alone, will grow into moguls. Typically, the front blade is used to smooth out the surface, and move snow into areas where loose snow has been pushed off by the day’s traffic. The blade is also used heavily after snow is made. Generally, snow is made in some type of pile, whether large or small. It is necessary to push large quantities of snow around to create the smooth even surface that Cannon skiers and riders expect. It may take a day or more to work a freshly covered trail into an even, enjoyable surface. Over time, snow constantly moves downhill, and tends to be pushed toward the edges of trails, so blading is needed to keep a good, consistent coat of snow across the slope.
The WINCH Cat - A must have for well tended steeps.
On steeper terrain, Cannon’s winch cat comes into its own. This cat has a winch mounted on the back. The end of the cable is attached to an anchor point at the top of a trail section. The winch keeps tension on the cable, allowing the tractor to move freely in any direction- even on a slope like Avalanche, or Paulie’s Folly. Snow can be moved uphill, or from side to side in places where it would be impossible without the aid the winch provides. Without the cable, a tractor that turns sideways would simply slide downhill, but with the winch, snow can easily be moved back and forth on the steepest slopes.
The Tiller - Crushing snow and making corduroy
The tiller has two functions; the first is to grind up the snow crystals and make the snow more dense. This makes the surface snow more durable. Behind the actual tiller is a mat which slides along the surface and packs snow down. It is the mat that leaves those distinctive lines in freshly groomed snow. The tiller can also grind very hard snow, or even ice, and return it to an enjoyable, soft state.
As you can see, there is more to snowmaking and grooming than at first, meets the eye. Both are vital to the goal of providing the best possible snow surface for the skiing and riding public. Top priority is given to both snowmaking and grooming, and all we ask is that you get on the snow and enjoy the results.