It takes a special breed to be a snowmaker. It’s not for the faint of heart, or for somebody who can’t take being exposed to the harsh winter elements for hours at a time, often in the middle of the night.

While skiers and snowboarders sleep, snow farmers create a man-made blanket of “corduroy” to glide, carve and push around.

“We definitely are not in it for the money,” Dave Whitcomb, mountain manager for Lost Valley in Auburn. “But we all choose to be here. It’s the love of the outdoors and the satisfaction we get from producing something unique. I was a farmer before I started doing this 22 years ago. They are very similar, both fighting mother nature and producing something for others to enjoy.”

Huddled inside a small cabin at the base of the ski area, the snowmakers warm up and trade stories between their rounds checking on the snow guns positioned on the trails, hoses, pipes and machinery.

Some of the equipment is from the original design by Otto Wallingford, who many consider the patriarch of modern snowmaking and grooming. His inventions in Auburn were in the forefront of grooming snow, crushing it up and smoothing it out, and mixing high-pressure air and water to spray into the cold to create man-made snow that, if mixed properly, mimics the real deal.

While still using some of Otto’s old designs, the new technology is far more efficient, greener and more productive. However, the initial cost of new machines is astronomical, so they make do with what they have and upgrade a little at a time.

It’s a science to make snow. The so-called wet bulb temperature determines when snow can be made.

“It’s all a derivative of humidity and ambient air temperature,” Whitcomb said. “I have made snow at 34 degrees before, but not been able at times when it was 28.”

Over the weekend, the snowmaking operation was cranked up at Lost Valley. The snow is blown into big piles so that if it rains or gets warm, it doesn’t melt as fast.

“It’s art and science to know where to put it, when to spread it out, when to groom it and when to leave it be,” Whitcomb said. “If you work wet snow too much, you get corn snow. It’s all about dealing with what mother nature gives you, and adapting.”

If mother nature cooperates, Lost Valley will be open in time for school vacation this month.

“Because we are such a small operation, vertically challenged that is, we have to work twice as hard to make the ski conditions and experience something that will make somebody want to return,” Whitcomb said. “We pride ourselves with not only the quality of our snow, but our intimate and friendly staff, and owners who are on the slopes and in the lodge every day.”

In addition to the paid staff, there is a core of volunteers who make up the close-knit community. Central Maine Adaptive Ski program, a world-class ski patrol, the Auburn Ski Association, along with businesses sponsoring free ski nights and many others, contribute to getting people out on the slopes who would not otherwise have the opportunity to try the sport.

The ski area gets support from the big mountains. The industry has realized over the years that revenue lost from tickets sold at small mountains is negligible considering they are like a feeder program for them. When new skiers and snowboarders learn to love the sport at small mountains, they will eventually head to the bigger ones for more challenging terrain, Whitcomb said.

“That’s what it’s all about, we in the industry share, coordinate and cooperate to help each other stay in business,” he said.


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