Keystone Snowmaking


Five Meteorological Phenomena in one: a sun dog (bright triangle), a parhelic circle (curved line connecting sun dug and the sun), a 22° halo (circle), an upper tangent arc and a Parry arc (top,) and diamond dust (looks like stars)

I woke up well before sunrise this morning. I slid my hand down my side and found the chord that ran in under the course sheets from my IV pole. I traced the chord to it’s handle and pushed the magic blue button.

The machine at the other end beeped and 0.4 lit up in red. Somewhere inside a pump came to life and began to add hydromorphone HCl to my IV tube from the 6 mg vial locked inside. I can press this button every 15 minutes. Any more and it just beeps at me. Only a nurse with the code can get to the vial or change the dosage.

The aching behind my nose fades away and I push the button again because, well, why not. Being in the hospital is like going to the buffet at Harrahs: I always eat more than one desert. I reached over and in the light from the bathroom found the incline adjustment and raised myself up. On my phone I checked the weather for Dillon. Aspen. Moab. Monticello. Farmington. Overcast in all directions for the upcoming Geminids meteor shower but no snow for the resorts. Dammit Jupiter, you are cruel. Contrary to  popular belief though, statewide snowpack is higher than last year, although it is still about 40% below average. Speaking of snowpack. Sometimes when you have sinus surgery they have to pack your sinuses with gauze to stop the bleeding. They didn’t have to do that to me. I started to wonder how much water the resorts are allowed to use. Can Keystone make fake snow all season? I dug into the nitty-gritty blog posts, newspaper articles and forum discussions to sift out a fluffier understanding of my favorite winter playground, Keystone Mountain Resort.

Keystone and Arapahoe Basin both have water rights to the Snake River. This is their primary water source for snowmaking. As far as I can tell there is no seasonal limit on the amount or timing of water use. The only limitation is that the Snake’s flow may not be made to drop below 6 c.f.s. This regulation protects native trout populations that will die if the river’s temperature drops too low as a result of the low water level. With permission from the Forest Service, Keystone can use additional water from the Snake River if skier safety is at risk, so long as flow rates do not drop below 2 c.f.s.  However, Keystone has an agreement with the State of Colorado to mitigate fish population declines by stocking catchable-sized rainbow trout to make up for those lost during due to low-flow.

When additional water is needed for snowmaking at Keystone it is diverted from the Roberts Tunnel via the 900-foot-deep Montezuma Shaft. Two pumps at the bottom of the vertical shaft run at 4kV and are permitted to extract as much as 1,500 acre feet of water (presumably on a yearly basis) from Denver’s water supply. Assuming that the snowmaking machines produce snow with a density of 30% this is enough water to cover all of Keystone (trees and sidecountry terrain included) with 18″ of snow. Impurities in the source water help ice crystals to spontaneously form, a process known generally as nucleation. Commercial products such as Drift as will as ina (ice nucleation-active) proteins from the bacterium Pseudomonas syringae are often added to increase nucleation, resulting in more efficient production and fluffier snow. It is not a good idea to ingest any of these and they can cause skin irritation as well.