Snowsports adapt to changing winters with snowmaking technology

Posted at 2:50 PM, Apr 29, 2022

BOISE, Idaho — A steady flow of snow is becoming more unpredictable in a changing climate, and the ski industry is adapting.

Gateway Parks, a snowsports haven with tubing, skiing, and snowboarding at Eagle Island State Park, is made possible solely with manufactured snow — and it could be the way of the future.

“You just need cold weather and cold water and throw it in the air," said Ryan Neptune, owner and operator of Gateway Parks. “There's no possibility of this place existing without snow guns."

To Neptune, making snow is a simple process. But the system at Eagle Island is actually fairly complex. It involves machinery, energy and infrastructure.

“I was a professional snowboarder my entire life and it was always my desire to get everyone skiing and snowboarding. So we created the snowpark ultimately to allow the barrier of entry to drop way low: free," Neptune said.

Neptune not only had a career hitting the slopes, but also building them. He told Idaho News 6 he's worked on building jumps for big events like the Snowboarding X-Games. Massive snow jumps and half pipes for events like the Olympics wouldn’t be possible with Mother Nature alone.

With snowmaking technology, a giant iceberg at Gateway Parks grows bit by bit at the tubing park — 45 feet high at the peak of the winter season.

“It’s a daily grind," Neptune said. “We take advantage of these little windows of snowmaking opportunities throughout the season,”

Gateway Parks will have 18 snowmaking guns next season. Not every model needs electricity, but the ones that do add costs. Utility bills at the hill can be up to $12,000 a month, according to Neptune, but it fluctuates.

"It just depends on the type of gun that you're using. Some are more efficient, but some are not effective during different times of the weather," he said.

Without this technology, the spot wouldn’t be possible on the Treasure Valley floor, but with warming winters and declining snowpack, more ski resorts in the mountains are turning towards the same tools. Bogus Basin is one of them. General Manager Brad Wilson says while natural snowfall has declined, the nonprofit has added snowmaking operations.

“We have around 50 snowmaking guns," Wilson said. “We can control, kind of, our opening dates and to a certain degree, our closing dates.”

With the help of this infrastructure, Bogus now opens consistently on Thanksgiving, but these additions aren’t cheap. Machines cost upwards of $30,000 each, and the infrastructure needed — piping for water, wiring for electricity, which also costs money.

“We are probably approaching $10 million dollars in snowmaking investment," Wilson said.

At the expanding ski resort Tamarack near Cascade, similar changes are underway

“We are going to add additional snowmaking," Tamarack General Manager Scott Turlington told Idaho News 6 of therecently approved expansion project. The added technology will help the resort cover nearly 500 acres with snowmaking.

“For us, the way we secure our future, the guests and everyone that comes to Tamarack and our homeowners, is we invest in those technologies that allow us to make snow," Turlington said.

Is this the future for more places that offer snow recreation? Ryan Neptune says yes.

“The data is irrefutable, it's just getting warmer and there's no way for ski resorts to sustain themselves without having some sort of snowmaking system," Neptune said.

As steady snow becomes more unreliable all winter long, ski areas are also adding snow groomers and more summertime activities to stay above the bottom line.

Adrienne Saia Isaac, National Ski Areas Association spokesperson, said ski areas are resilient and working towards solutions.

“When I think of something like snowmaking, operationally it's been around for decades and while it can help ski areas be more resilient in the face of a changing climate, it's not going to solve our problems,"

Isaac said more entities in the outdoor industry are going to lawmakers for help.

“It has to be bipartisan. You cannot do this by one party alone, and we have got to find the common ground, which in the mountain west is sustaining these rural communities," Isaac said.

To view additional reporting on how Idaho's ski economy is susceptible to changing winters, part 1 of this series, click here.