Snow Men: The business of snowmaking at Tyrol Basin

In the pre-dawn hours, Tyrol Basin Ski Area shines brightly under the stars. It’s an idyllic scene. Ski runs are aglow with towering white lights while billows of man-made snow waft hundreds of feet into the air. The only sound: grinding engines of snowcats and groomers, and the whine of snowmaking machines.

A skeleton crew has been tending to Tyrol’s 17 ski runs all night, as they do every night between November and March. Snow from the area’s first big storm clings to trees everywhere, and workers are hoping for a long winter ski season.

For 41-year-old Mark McKay, snowmaking and grooming supervisor, the snow season represents, in large part, his livelihood for the next year. “I make close to a year’s salary [$25,000 to $30,000] in three months,” he says, but there’s a price for that. “This is all I do. Work and sleep. I live at the end of the driveway, I’m here sometimes 24 hours a day,” as is his dad, General Manager Don McKay, and his mom, Sue. 

On their most recent paychecks, Mark recorded 89 hours of overtime, his mom, 56. And Don, who reported in at 7 this morning and will work until 2 or 3 in the morning to help build the ski hill’s terrain park, is salaried.

The family doesn’t own Tyrol (there are four equal investors, and Don owns 5%), but since 1989, it’s been their way of life. Coming off last winter’s unusually warm weather, the recent snows have visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads. But Mother Nature’s blanket is only part of the hill’s success: making snow the artificial way is what truly keeps the runs open.

Snow science

Snowmaking is more science than art, Don explains. “We want drier, colder air. Humidity is a bigger factor when temps are 25 and above. The strategy changes day to day and sometimes from one slope to the other. If we open the next day at 9, we make sure that any snow we make overnight is more powdery. If a slope isn’t going to be open, we can go for quantity rather than quality to build the base up.” Tyrol Ski Basin started making snow on Oct. 27 and has been building its base ever since.

Each evening when the hill shuts down at 9, the overnight groomers and snowmakers get busy. Mark, a seasonal employer and roofer in the warmer off-season, usually works 8 p.m. to about 11 a.m., seven days a week. He loves the nights. Why? “That’s when it’s cold,” he laughs. “Snowmaking is best when it’s between minus-5 and plus-5 degrees.” 

His first few hours are typically spent moving snowmaking equipment around to various parts of the hill, hooking up the fans and making sure they all work properly. It’s a monumental task that can take several hours because Tyrol has 20 fixed snowmaking towers and 23 portable blowers that are towed to temporary locations as necessary. Each blower is hooked up to an electrical power source and a water hose that is pumped from a well-water pond at the bottom of the hill. “We run about 35 machines every night. That’s a lot of set-up and shut-down,” McKay says.

High-pressure water spigots encircle the mouths of each snowmaking fan, spewing a fine mist into a central cold air stream and creating particles of ice dust. Ice crystals form around the ice dust nuclei, creating snow. By selectively turning the water nozzles on or off, operators can control how wet or powdery the snow can be, and that largely depends on weather conditions. 

Mark’s father, Don, explains: “At 28 degrees, if you run six to seven nozzles open, you might put 20 gallons per minute of water through [a fan], creating less snow. But at 10 to 15 degrees, you can open additional nozzles, and that same machine can be running 80 gallons a minute, making four times as much snow because it’s colder out.” Wind can cause problems, too. Snow that blows into the trees is considered wasted water, so it’s important to work with the wind.

After a night of snowmaking, enormous mounds several yards high accumulate beneath the snowmakers and must be distributed onto the slopes, building the base. A 36-inch base is ideal, not only because it makes for a better ski experience, but also because it supports the slower months of March and sometimes April, when temperatures are warm and snow is less likely to fall. On this day, Mark reports the base is at 12 to 24 inches. 

 

Cool cat

With snowmakers properly pumping snow onto the day’s closed runs, Mark jumps into his snow groomer to continue attacking piles left on other slopes. The groomer is a huge tractor with very wide tracks that allow it to move anywhere, at any angle. It’s roomy, comfortable, and warm inside the cab. A knee-to-ceiling front windshield allows for perfect vision, and behind, the cat pulls a 16-foot-wide groomer that rototills new snow into old and prepares the surface for skiers. 

At the top, with miles of rolling countryside in the distance, McKay maneuvers his cat to the edge of a near-vertical black-diamond run, then drops off the cliff at an impossible angle. Using a joystick controller, he expertly guides the vehicle backward, forward, and side to side across the run, with tons of snow rolling under the front plow. By alternately lifting and dropping the blade, he spreads the snow evenly before finishing with one final sweep of the groomer. 

Freshly groomed, the hill looks like a corduroy-ribbed, white blanket. Satisfied, McKay moves to the next slope. “Everyone thinks grooming is such a cool job,” he laughs. “But it gets old fast. Imagine mowing your lawn for 14 hours every single day. That’s what it’s like.”

He worked 67 hours over three days – through Christmas Eve and Christmas – and did the same through the New Year’s holiday. The following week he expected to rack up about 120 hours. The worst part of the job, he says, is fatigue, and catching colds that he says are hard to shake. 

His favorite part, though, is being outside. “I like being out there, physically moving, moving the ‘guns’ around and getting them running,” he says. In a typical night, about half his time is spent on snowmaking, and half on grooming. Typically, snow is made on two to three runs at a time.

On this night, McKay groomed half of Tyrol Basin’s 17 runs, while his colleague and primary groomer, T.J., handled identical duties on the other half. 

The end goal is a ski hill with runs that are smooth and clean just prior to opening, and clean is the operative word. Nothing seems to irk McKay more than seeing a dirty clump of gray snow on the ground, or brown mud creeping into sight. “A spot of dirt the size of a quarter will smear 30 feet when it’s warm,” he says. “It looks terrible and is hard to get rid of. You have to keep the snow clean!”

Tyrol Basin has five large snowcats, some used to push snow and transport snowmaking guns, and two specifically used for grooming. Each morning, other staff members put signage back out on the trails, erect snow fences, and conduct safety checks of all the equipment, so that when the ski hill opens, skiers will be treated to a safe, fun day.

Shouldering the bills

Tyrol’s peak season is Dec. 26 through March 1. According to Don McKay, during its “shoulder” season (i.e., before Christmas), they simply hope to bring in enough money to pay the bills. 

“We’re typically open 100 days, but we have to make enough for 365 days of operation.” Of those 100 days, Tyrol really makes its money in just 30 days – 10 school holidays and about 20 weekends. “The rest of the days we’re open are not the breadwinners,” McKay says. “Some days, it costs more to be open than if we had closed.” 

Cases in point: If the Badgers play in the Rose Bowl, or the Packers make it into the NFL playoffs or the Super Bowl, Tyrol sees a drastic decline in skiers, who either watch games at home or leave the area to attend in person. “We can lose $80,000 on Super Bowl Sunday,” he says, heading to the maintenance shop.

Meanwhile, at the bottom of the hill, Mark is finishing his shift for the day. By 9:10 a.m., the nearest parking lot is filling up, and on the hill, skiers are whisked to the hill’s summit on chairlifts. 

Mark jumps out of his parked cat. “Ah, I get to go home,” he sighs, stretching. Another 2 to 4 inches of snow are predicted for the next day. “That’s nice,” he says, “that’s the perfect amount.”

Then he and T.J. head into Tyrol’s restaurant for a well-deserved sandwich. 

Tyrol Basin Ski and Snowboard Area
3487 Bohn Road, Mount Horeb, WI 53572
608.437.4135  |  tyrolbasin.com

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