Is man made snow really different?
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oldensign - DCSki Columnist
February 7, 2008
Member since 02/27/2007 🔗
437 posts
I am asked this question in many forms by different people. Mostly those who don't ski, don't really ski, or only ski on real snow ( the snobby types who only ski out west or in Europe).

But I ask you is there really a difference between man made snow and the stuff that falls from the sky?

I say no. It is just frozen water. You put your skis on and you slide down.

But I am sure there are those who can tell me why it is different.
Murphy
February 7, 2008
Member since 09/13/2004 🔗
618 posts
Man-made snow seems more like sleet to me but it pretty much all grooms the same.
skier219
February 7, 2008
Member since 01/8/2005 🔗
1,318 posts
Significantly different, and I think most skiers can easily tell the difference. For one thing, you'll never ever see manmade powder that is anywhere near the real thing. And if you've ever skied over a combination of manmade and natural snow, the differences are very apparent by feel when you transition from one to the other.

Snow guns produce small heavy crystals, whereas natural snow forms into bigger lighter flakes. As a result, manmade snow is a lot denser and heavier. This lends itself to base building, and makes the manmade snow a lot more robust under traffic and when going through temperature swings. But I think the surface quality suffers because of that. Even the best manmade snow is significantly harder and rougher than natural snow when packed and groomed.

You can also see the effect on your skis. I skied three days on natural snow at Alta a couple weeks ago, and my ski bases look fine -- like they were just waxed. Whereas, after just a couple hours on manmade at Wintergreen, the bases will have dry spots and show signs of base burn. The manmade snow is a lot harder on wax and bases than the natural snow.
Denis - DCSki Supporter
February 7, 2008
Member since 07/12/2004 🔗
2,217 posts
Skier219 has it right. Natural snow can be infinitely better and infinitely worse than man made. The difference is a feel thing. Those who can't tell the difference are probably lucky. Finding it can be an endless quest.

One thing is painfully obvious to anyone who has used a lift and then exited to the backcountry and returned to their car later by skiing down a lift served trail. Man made snow packs down into ice a lot faster. Good grooming helps only for the first hour or two. Once it gets skied a lot it turns into boiler plate. Ski areas that rely mostly or exclusively on natural snow ski differently. If there isn't enough of it the rocks & dirt will be exposed a lot quicker. If there is enough it will not turn into ice nearly as fast. I believe that the modern ski resort has contributed significantly to high speed trauma type accidents on the slopes. Wide groomed slopes with man made snow are an invitation to speed. Mad River Glen has NEVER had a fatality in 60 years of operation. http://www.madriverglen.com/
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David
February 7, 2008
Member since 06/28/2004 🔗
2,444 posts
 Originally Posted By: oldensign

I say no. It is just frozen water. You put your skis on and you slide down.

But I am sure there are those who can tell me why it is different.


Oh wow...Skier219's analysis is right on. The best way I could suggest to find out the difference for yourself would be to take a microscope or magnifying glass out while it is snowing. Check out the crystal structure of a snowflake. I'm not sure how you could do the same at a resort but check out the crystal structure of a man-made snowflake. That will show you how different they really are...
David
February 7, 2008
Member since 06/28/2004 🔗
2,444 posts
Here's a good pic that I found on Nasa's website that explains the crystal structure really well.

Natural on the left & manmade on the right.
skier219
February 7, 2008
Member since 01/8/2005 🔗
1,318 posts
Damn that manmade stuff is UGLY!
k_alice
February 7, 2008
Member since 11/22/2005 🔗
92 posts
Rather than the difference between man-made and natural snow, I think the bigger issue in the mid-Atantic is the thaw-freeze-thaw cycle. I'm not sure the initial composition of the snow matters so much once it's melted, frozen, and been groomed. I would bet that's what accounts for the much of wear on ski bases if you ski our local resorts.
David
February 7, 2008
Member since 06/28/2004 🔗
2,444 posts
 Originally Posted By: skier219
Damn that manmade stuff is UGLY!


Heck yea. It is crazy how when looking at the 2 with the naked eye how similar they look. Makes me not want to ski manmade anymore.


-Denis, that is an interesting statistic. Sadly I am sure most ski resorts can't boast the same. I guess people there only 'ski it if they can'....
Roger Z
February 7, 2008
Member since 01/16/2004 🔗
2,181 posts
 Quote:
Mad River Glen has NEVER had a fatality in 60 years of operation.


True, but more than one person skiing the single chair liftline has been so embarrassed as to wish they were dead (oh yes, I speak from experience).
KevR
February 7, 2008
Member since 01/27/2004 🔗
786 posts
Well you need one ski run, half-natural/half-manmade. Snow created at IDENTICAL time frames, same humidity and temps levels. Then groom it ...

Then take away all the people that made the snow (you're trying for a double blind test) that would know which side is which...

And the let 100 people run down it say at roughly the same period (not at once obviously) & then let them pick -- take your sample and see how often they are correct.

Also you cannot let them stop and sample the snow on the way down in anyway except by skiing it. (or boarding but you'd want to sort them out separately just in case either skiers or borders can tell for whatever reason better than the other)



The Colonel - DCSki Supporter
February 7, 2008
Member since 03/5/2004 🔗
3,107 posts
Better ugly than dirt!
The Colonel
Denis - DCSki Supporter
February 7, 2008
Member since 07/12/2004 🔗
2,217 posts
 Originally Posted By: KevR
Well you need one ski run, half-natural/half-manmade. Snow created at IDENTICAL time frames, same humidity and temps levels. Then groom it ...


Yikes - NOOOO. Grooming ruins it. Of course it would ruin the test too. Everyone would know that the ungroomed snow was natural.

OTOH call me and I will skier groom it. Then you can conduct a fair test.
tromano
February 7, 2008
Member since 12/19/2002 🔗
998 posts
I would say that natural snow is really a whole variety of different things. Man made is pretty much all the same.
fishnski
February 7, 2008
Member since 03/27/2005 🔗
3,530 posts
Manmade is a little sluggish when Fresh but after a cold nite & grooming its fine like cheap wine!..Powder is exotic but to a true skier that loves speed & G forces as long as its packed its good!
Speaking of Manmade..the cold temps are here...Who is making snow?..I wish the Valley(22 right now) areas were Blasting..Are they?
Clay
February 7, 2008
Member since 04/11/2006 🔗
555 posts
Looking at Tline's webcam I would say that they are blasting the base area (at least)
KevR
February 7, 2008
Member since 01/27/2004 🔗
786 posts
The myth has to be about groomed. First there's simply no such thing as "manmade powder" skiing. I think we can agree on this point.

Now there's a suggestion that "skier packed" would be a good comparison against manmade.

My opinion is this isn't as it would be completely obvious again... the skier packed would simply be way too obvious if you ask me.

Instead the real test is natural groomed vs manmade groomed...

Personally I think there's a difference -- although fresh, cold, groomed and dry manmade is pretty nice...

I do think the roughly the same in natural is discernable if you've skied a bit ...

BUT that's subjective
David
February 7, 2008
Member since 06/28/2004 🔗
2,444 posts
Ask Craig, he will verify this for me. We skied Timberline last year the day after one of those big storms we got last March. Pretty much all of the previous day's powder was groomed, but skied much softer than any groomed manmade that I have skied. I have never skied out west but I am assuming that this has to be what it is like about everyday skiing a groomer.
skier219
February 7, 2008
Member since 01/8/2005 🔗
1,318 posts
Yes, the corduroy at TL was exquisite that day, about the best I have ever seen in this area. It was very much like the corduroy I encountered out at Alta recently, on some of the trails they groomed (more grooming than I expected). I think natural snow corduroy is definitely softer, quieter, and has a more damped feeling (versus the scratchy feel of the manmade stuff). This possibly has to do with the fact that the natural snow starts out lighter and fluffier, whereas the manmade pretty much starts out as concrete. I think they groom out a bit differently in the end.
tromano
February 7, 2008
Member since 12/19/2002 🔗
998 posts
When you ski a fresh natural snow groomer on skinnny skis alot of times you sink in 1-2 inches. That never happens on man made groomers.
therusty
February 8, 2008
Member since 01/17/2005 🔗
422 posts
Skier219 has it 95% right. Another difference between manmade and natural is the moisture content. Most manmade will run over 30% moisture content (10 inches packs down to 3 inches or more). Natural snow averages out to 10% moisture content.

It is possible to blow man made powder (<15% moisture content). The reason why you don't see a lot of this is that is an expensive vanity. Whitetail has occasionally done this on Bold Decision when the resort is 100% open, well covered and the overnight temps go below 20. It's a rare (and never advertised)treat to ski 6 inches of man made powder, but I've done it a few times at Whitetail. It is equivalent to light Sierra cement. In addition to the low temps and low winds, they must set the water to air ratio extremely low. Compressing and chilling all that extra air for the same amount of snow depth is what makes this an expensive practice.

The freeze thaw cycle will make any snow worse. Anyone who has done spring skiing out West and been on "corn" snow before the sun has turned it into corn knows the difference between true boilerplate and hardened man made. Whether it's man made or natural, if it gets thoroughly soaked and then freezes it's going to much harder than any snow that's just packed down or scraped off.
teleman
February 8, 2008
Member since 07/8/2005 🔗
145 posts
"The myth has to be about groomed. First there's simply no such thing as "manmade powder" skiing. I think we can agree on this point."

Some of the best powder snow I have ever skied on was man made. I skied White Heat at Sunday River in sub-zero temps with boot top super light man made snow.

The reason most man made snow sucks is the moisture content while making it. Most of the snow making in the east is focused on making a base; which has high moisture content and a higher yield. Some of the NE resorts resurface the trails after a base is established, and then when conditions are optimal man made powder can exist.

However, Rusty is correct, it is very expensive to make snow with a low moisture content.
JohnL
February 11, 2008
Member since 01/6/2000 🔗
3,516 posts
Generally speaking, skiing in man-made pow does sucketh, but I did hit some surprisingly nice snow on Stein's Run in Sugarbush a few Xmas's ago. Had to duck the guns here and there, but the snow was great.

AFAIC, Skier219 and Rusty spelled it out.
KevR
February 11, 2008
Member since 01/27/2004 🔗
786 posts
Well -- if you insist. But the original test, now replicated twice would suffice. Two trails: one trail is half-manmade/half-natural groomed, and the other is manmade "powder" and natural powder to a similar depth (if manmade maxes out at 6" we have to stop there for depth)...

NOW then -- assume the temps/weather conditions are the same during the creation of the snow and that the people taking the test and giving the test do not know which side is which on each hill. (the groomers leave for vacation -- double blind test!)

So -- suppose YOU were one of the test subjects...

Think you could tell, ONLY thru skiing the runs? Why?

I personally believe that skiers with some experience could probably tell ...

What I mean is if you had 100 skiers test each run, and then "score" which side of each run is which, natural or manmade, that correct answers would be better than what you'd get by guessing which would be 50-50 on average.
skier219
February 12, 2008
Member since 01/8/2005 🔗
1,318 posts
I have to say -- the manmade snow at Snowshoe, from Sunday night into Monday, was quite good because of the low temps (-6F in the morning when we woke up). In fact, I think they were pushing the limits by making snow at such low temps (you run into potential piping and nozzle icing issues when it gets real cold). But it was nice snow, and the groomed packed snow even had the characteristic squeak/crunch I associate with real snow. Where the snow was loose, however, you would never mistake it for powder -- it was more like granulated sugar, and kind of heavy to ski through.
pagamony - DCSki Supporter
February 12, 2008
Member since 02/23/2005 🔗
838 posts
I am surprised this thread has gone on so long.

experientially, its' hard to describe, but obvious. Real snow is just sooo much better, the degree of which is not really debatable.

mathematically, it's latent factors in the model, terms that cannot be measured directly but can be included in the model. Think principle components, for instance.

\:\)
KevR
February 12, 2008
Member since 01/27/2004 🔗
786 posts
I think in the end, all factors being equal: same water content, same humidity at time of creation and during skiing, same temps, same sun exposure, same number of previous skiers, same amount of grooming, same trail/slope parameters...

That manmade snow still differs in TEXTURE from natural snow -- and this is what folks would end up noticing.

Now the question is can just the texture itself of manmade snow result in subtly different skiing properties?

Not sure frankly on groomed slopes, but it seems like it will result in denser feeling snow in deeper powder & this would be detectable and affect the skiing slightly.

I also think natural snowfall on groomed slopes tends to feel softer but this is not good data because I *know* when I am skiing on natural snowfall, at least I think I do & this may skew my own observation because I *want* it to feel different.
pagamony - DCSki Supporter
February 12, 2008
Member since 02/23/2005 🔗
838 posts
 Originally Posted By: KevR

I *know* when I am skiing on natural snowfall, at least I think I do & this may skew my own observation because I *want* it to feel different.


Your feelings are valid. See, that's the latent factors coming out. Just because you don't measure something doesn't mean it doesn't exist. This is standard stats.

iirc, manmade snow is not really the classic crystal snowflake shape, but rather some frozen rhombus type thing, even when the environmental properties are the same.
Crush
February 12, 2008
Member since 03/21/2004 🔗
1,010 posts
yeah i can feel it - but a lot of the time i don't give a crap about it. actually one of the worst is 3 inches of skied-out natural on top of a natural base - call it "mean-snow"...

i think truly it's more what the groomers do - case in point - deer valley. ski there on almost totally man-made and it was still hero-snow ... masters of the flex-tiller.
fishnski
February 12, 2008
Member since 03/27/2005 🔗
3,530 posts
I woke up early to get the 1st tracks at Camelback(poconos) about 27 years ago & Could not believe the 6 to 8 inches of the softest,Fluffiest snow I had ever experienced...I Cked the weather report after skiing to see if it had snowed that nite & it Haddent(Word?)..That was manmade 27 years ago..Thank God for manmade!
The Colonel - DCSki Supporter
February 18, 2008
Member since 03/5/2004 🔗
3,107 posts
http://www.skiliberty.com/lmr/info/snowmaking.aspx

I found this on the SkiLiberty site and thought it might add a bit to this earlier discussion area.
The Colonel \:\)
skier219
February 18, 2008
Member since 01/8/2005 🔗
1,318 posts
Nice overview, thanks for posting the link!
Denis - DCSki Supporter
February 18, 2008
Member since 07/12/2004 🔗
2,217 posts
Well we would have little or no lift served skiing in our part of the world without man-made snow. It's not just the obvious that it can be made when it's cold enough even when nothing is falling from the sky. It stands up to warm temperatures and rain infinitely better than natural snow. That was never more clear than on this weekend. I was at Canaan Valley with my scout troop for their annual ski trip, booked and paid for a long time ago of course. There were 4 trails open. On Sat. they were fast and firm, a bit of scrapings on rock hard ice. Yesterday it warmed upp and you could set an edge; it even got spring like by mid afternoon. This morning it dawned 44 deg. and rain. A vote was taken and we went home. A bust? Perhaps, but it would have been a total non-event if it depended on natural snow. My earlier reports on this thread were snow snob comments. The above is reality for where we live.
KevR
February 18, 2008
Member since 01/27/2004 🔗
786 posts
I wonder, could it be economical to have a few special "manmade powder days" at certain nearby resorts (given the right conditions) -- with a premium attached to the privilege of taking a few runs.

So something like this -- let's use Bold Decision as an example. On one of those days, cover the thing in 12 inches of "fresh stuff"...

Now close it for 1/2 the morning and upcharge for the privilege to ski it in that time...

How much would it cost to produce the 12 inches of powder (they could just go from the large drop down to flattish run out even)... ?

Let's say they keep it open to the 'premium skiers' for 4 hrs and those skiers pay $50 for the privilege to ski it on top of their normal lift.

NOW -- let's say 1 skier per minute -- so that's 240 skiers in the four hours... let's make it 250 even to simplify the math.

I know, I know -- it'll all be tracked out soon enough at that rate but this is just to get an estimate.

Ok so - that's 1000 skiers in fours at 50$ EXTRA each or 50,000k ...

Does it cost 50k to make that much powder? Is there any hope for profit?

I haven't a clue really but I might pay the $50 for it... would I pay more? Not sure, maybe...
teleman
February 18, 2008
Member since 07/8/2005 🔗
145 posts
it costs about $1000 to cover 1 acre with 1 inch
The Colonel - DCSki Supporter
February 18, 2008
Member since 03/5/2004 🔗
3,107 posts
KevR,
IMO, you are a desperate man! I suspect that such a pricing arrangement would anger the regulars who would question why the new snow was not spreadout on all or many of the trails, not just one for those will to pay over twice the cost of a daily lift ticket. The amount of ill will this would create would greatly negate any short term profit.
The Colonel \:\)
KevR
February 18, 2008
Member since 01/27/2004 🔗
786 posts
Teleman, is the $1000 x 1 inch x 1 acre loose snow or groomed?

In defense, I'm not really advocating this -- its really just a question of whether the economics support such a crazy idea.

I do think most of the points are mitigated by various factors -- first I'd envision this only happening on a few special days of the season when the weather is just right on the right Saturday or holiday to ensure the crowds...

Second I'd assume in such pristine weather conditions the REST of the resort would be in great shape too, so this is more of a cherry ontop scenario.

Further a lot of regular ski folks would not want to ski in such stuff, I've been up at whitetail when a couple of inches of the fresh stuff sent many folks running inside until the snow tracked out!

And finally the run (in my scenario) would not be closed the full day so in the end everyone gets a chance to try something a little different.

The economics of it are still not clear but don't seem out of reach either. If you just took a PORTION of one of the runs -- say 2 acres worth and covered it in 12 inches of snow, that's 24k in costs.

Do you think then that the costs could be made up in 4 hrs on a busy Saturday with premium billing?

Maybe!
skier219
February 19, 2008
Member since 01/8/2005 🔗
1,318 posts
I wouldn't pay extra. Even the best manmade "powder" is not going to be as good as the real stuff. Yes, they can make it fine and light, but it still differs in some key aspects. I guess when skiing crosses the line from reasonable to contrived, I start losing interest. And skiing in this area is usually right on that line already!

I think everybody ought to chase natural powder and experience powder the right way. This hasn't been the greatest season, but in an average season I can usually hit 2-3 powder days without a lot of trouble, more if I work at it.
teleman
February 19, 2008
Member since 07/8/2005 🔗
145 posts
 Originally Posted By: KevR
Teleman, is the $1000 x 1 inch x 1 acre loose snow or groomed?

The economics of it are still not clear but don't seem out of reach either. If you just took a PORTION of one of the runs -- say 2 acres worth and covered it in 12 inches of snow, that's 24k in costs.

Do you think then that the costs could be made up in 4 hrs on a busy Saturday with premium billing?

Maybe!




The $1000/acre-inch is in year 2000 dollars. I suspect it is $1500 to $2000 in todays dollars. My source does not indicate if it is groomed or loose snow.
therusty
February 20, 2008
Member since 01/17/2005 🔗
422 posts
I do like the way you guys are thinking. I'll see what kind of hard data I can come up with over the off season to get some better answers, but I'll take a quick stab at this based on past experience.

With respect to Bold Decision at Whitetail, the freshies are tracked out after 30-50 skiers tops and the crud is packed down after about 300 runs. When they do make freshies, they are gone in 3 laps when there is no access limitation. We're basically talking 10-15 skiers who are getting the goods. I was going to point out that if you offered such a product that you'd need to also factor in the labor for keeping poachers out, but practically speaking - there just aren't that many skiers on Bold first thing in the morning anyway. Given that there probably aren't more than 300 different skiers who ski on Bold on the busiest weekends, the market for a premium powder ticket is going to be pretty small.

If one wanted to make this idea into a profitable product, my suggestion would be to make it a $500 1/2 day powder lesson and limit it to ten skiers. My SWAG is that $5K is roughly 2-3 times the extra cost of blowing powder snow versus normal snow on this one trail.

Teleman's numbers sound like for base depth coverage. My guess is that Bold runs about 5-7 acres tops. To figure the cost of blowing pow, you've got to subtract out the cost of blowing normal snow. The cost of the water is the same, but the air cost of blowing is going to be 4-8 times as great by my SWAG. There probably is not a 1-1 relationship between the pack down percentage of the pow and the extra air required (e.g. if there is 12" of pow that packs down to 1.2" of base, a 1-1 relationship would mean 6 times as much air assuming normal man made packs down 2" of blown to one inch of base), but I'd bet the relationship is close to 1-1 at 20 degree temps. Since I'm not a snowmaker we have to assume that my numbers are substantially off. However, the math approach might work once we get some hard numbers to work with. Once the costs are quantified, it will be easier to determine if a profitable product can be offered.

Note that there is also a potential opportunity cost. Under normal snowmaking conditions, blowing excess air means leaving water in the pond that could have been turned into snow. Whitetail has only blown pow on Bold when there is already enough snow on the trail to last through the end of the season and when the temps are cold enough that there is excess air capacity that would otherwise go unused. In this case, the opportunity cost is zero. But these conditions are quite rare.
Scott - DCSki Editor
February 20, 2008
Member since 10/10/1999 🔗
1,139 posts
I'm sorry, but for $500, I'm hopping on a plane to Denver!
David
February 20, 2008
Member since 06/28/2004 🔗
2,444 posts
 Originally Posted By: Scott
I'm sorry, but for $500, I'm hopping on a plane to Denver!


That's what I was thinking. No questions asked.
therusty
February 22, 2008
Member since 01/17/2005 🔗
422 posts
Those of us who have spent $500 on a trip to Denver and been skunked on fresh pow might believe that there are 10 skiers in the DC area with more than money than time who have never skied powder. These people might view a guaranteed weekend powder experience as a better deal than flying to Denver.

Most of us who have spent $500 on a trip to Denver and scored some freshies aren't likely to pay $50 extra to score local man made freshies when we can get real local freshies for no extra charge just by watching the weather, taking a day off and getting up early.
jimmy
February 22, 2008
Member since 03/5/2004 🔗
2,650 posts
 Originally Posted By: therusty


Most of us who have spent $500 on a trip to Denver and scored some freshies aren't likely to pay $50 extra to score local man made freshies when we can get real local freshies for no extra charge just by watching the weather, taking a day off and getting up early.



That's my first thought on this, assuming you can make a day trip for the freshies. What about someone who makes $500 a day though, not me, but they could buy their own powder experience for the price of blowing off a day of work. Flying west to me is about skiing terrain u can't find around here, if i get the pow, that's a bonus. i'm not all bummed out because i didn't get my pow......disappointed a bit but there's no guarantee.
The Colonel - DCSki Supporter
February 22, 2008
Member since 03/5/2004 🔗
3,107 posts
I am with you, jimmy.
The Colonel \:\)
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