Each October, when the rest of us are still oohing and ahhing over golden aspens, a special group of people are looking beyond the glory of autumn and willing something smaller and whiter to fall from the sky. Among those performing the most emphatic snow dances are a quartet of Colorado ski resorts that participate in the unofficial race to open first.
All of the resorts—Loveland Ski Area, Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, Wolf Creek Ski Area, and Keystone Ski Resort—have their own series of strategies to achieve an early opening. But for each, the contest requires careful planning, dogged weather analysis, an emphasis on efficiency, and a whole lot of luck.
The stakes are also high. Clearly, a ski resort needs skiers to make money. Opening early—and first—also provides a major marketing boost: The event will certainly make the local news, probably earn a mention on multiple national networks, and may even garner international attention. “Looking at the number of mentions and impressions of being first to open, when you convert it to dollars, the marketing guys will tell you that it’s worth in the millions,” says Alan Henceroth, Arapahoe Basin’s chief operating officer.
The records are somewhat fuzzy, and qualifications for what counts as “open” are often debated. (Should it count if a resort opens for weekends only? What about if they run their lifts for a day, but then close again?) During the past 40 years, though, Loveland seems to have the most wins with a streak of Ws in the 1990s and early 2000s, though it shared opening day with Keystone a few of those years. Keystone was dominant in the late ’80s. Arapahoe Basin then took the reins through much of the 2010s, while Wolf Creek was the uncontested winner in 2020. This year, Wolf Creek will be the victor once more, thanks to a 14-inch dump that will allow them to open this Saturday (weekends only for now), inching out Arapahoe Basin by a day.
Ideally, of course, Mother Nature complies in early season and drops a frosty blanket across the peaks. Take, for instance, Wolf Creek Ski Area. The Pagosa Springs location has been known to get an October dump of more than 40 inches of heavy, wet snow—what the resort’s owner Davey Pitcher likens to glue because “it sticks to everything.” Some years, that’s enough. In 2011, such a scenario allowed them to open much of the mountain, including some expert terrain, on October 7.
For most resorts, however, while early season snow helps, it isn’t enough to hang the proverbial “open for business” sign in the window. What’s more important is getting a string of cold nights around or under 28 degrees Farenheit—even better if those evenings are paired with dry air conditions and a few cold days. When the combination of normal temperature and humidity—what’s known as the wet-bulb temperature—meets Goldilocks’ criteria of “just right,” it’s time to start making snow.
The exact process for making snow varies across the four frontrunners. In 2019, Keystone upgraded its snowmaking system, replacing 50 snow guns with low-energy, high-efficiency models that automatically detect changes in temperature and humidity. A-Basin positions permanent fan guns on towers along a few of the most popular runs lower on the mountain and then uses fan guns on wheels to supplement snow stashes higher up. Meanwhile, Loveland and Wolf Creek primarily use mobile snowmaking systems that can be deployed where they see fit. The latter has also been known to send teams out to shovel natural snow from the woods into 55-gallon trash cans, before bringing it back to specific runs. In 2017, they hauled 7,000 barrels of snow that way.
The resorts typically focus on areas where the snow can service the most people (namely, beginner and intermediate terrain), as well as on shaded, often north-facing runs. They’ll then turn their snow guns on for hours at a time, creating snow piles nicknamed “whales” or “belugas.”
Then, in come the snow cats, which move the snow around, much like spreading peanut butter on a piece of toast. Pitcher estimates three feet of man-made snow can pack down to about 24 inches. It’s a massive effort that relies heavily on the right weather conditions. “The bigger the snowmaking system, the more energy it takes to start it, the more staffing you need to run it,” he says. “It’s not worth starting unless you have consistently cold temperatures. The worst scenario is that you start it, and it gets warm overnight. You can make a real mess.”
The benefits of snowmaking, however, are well worth the effort. In addition to creating a more consistent and reliable early season snow experience (read: fewer exposed rocks and errant branches to bust up your skis, or worse, your body), it also “gives real snow something to stick to,” says John Sellers, Loveland’s marketing and communications director. Adding inches through manual efforts even bolsters high-traffic areas and helps the snowpack last later into the spring. “Snowmaking is not really a short-term thing,” he adds. “It’s for the good of the whole season.”
But it’s not just snowmaking that has to ramp up for an early-season opening; staffing is another huge component. In addition to their teams of snowmaking experts, resorts need people to run the lifts, concessions, ski school, and retail shops. Many resorts rely on their summer employees to stay on, along with the return of seasonal employees who have worked with them in the past. “We just ramp our way up until we’re at full capacity,” Henceroth says. “It’s definitely expensive to get the whole ship moving in the right direction, but once we open, the returns begin instantly.”
Despite the significant returns of claiming the title, the race itself remains good-natured, with resorts largely taking a “rising tides lift all boats” mentality. “Anybody getting open early is a good thing for the industry in Colorado,” Sellers says. “It’s just a reminder that even if there’s not snow on the ground where you live, ski season is here.”