Thursday, June 17, 2021

Mammoth Mountain, CA “Snow Farming:” A Dutiful Art on an Absolutely Massive Scale

This image—captured from an aerial point of view—shows resort snowcats farming snow. | Photo courtesy of pistenteam_andermatt

Give Michaelangelo some marble and you’ll probably get a sculpture. Give him some late-Spring snow and a snowcat and he might just be Mammoth Mountain’s Director of Slope Maintenance and the Unbound Terrain Parks, Scott Cherry.

Cherry organizes the resort crews that keep Mammoth and its terrain parks open long after other ski areas have already shut down and transitioned towards summer activities. This is because Mammoth is not like other ski areas. Most ski areas don’t consistently build terrain parks and maintain ski trails until the end of May.

Mammoth officially stopped spinning its lifts this season on Memorial Day, 2021 (May 31.) From the end of April until that fervent closing day, resort crews were giving every nail, tooth, and tear they had left in an effort to keep the mountain open and the runs skiable. They did a damn good job. Snowcats would push, pull, extract, and chisel snow off some slopes and onto others in a process that Mammoth refers to as “snow farming.” It’s like sculpting but in accordance with nature and on a very large scale with very large machinery. Even airborne tools—strapped onto airplanes—get used in the mountain’s unique snow farming system.

“The one thing we have on our side that’s a game-changer is SNOWsat, which is basically sonar with lidar mapping of our mountain,” Cherry said over the phone. “So they’ll fly a plane over our mountain, map it for us, and then upload it onto their system and create layers. Then they’ll upload that layering onto a tablet-sized screen inside the snowcats which will tell you within a half-an-inch of where your snow’s at. It’s like a fishfinder.”

A snowcat farms snow. | Photo courtesy of prinoth_pistenbully_pics

The technology described by Cherry is not controlled by him and his team but rather by PistenBully, who is contracted with Mammoth. With the use of lidar, cat drivers can see exactly where the snow is—and precisely how much of it is left—on a screen inside of the snowcat. Cherry, simultaneously, can look at another map on his computer screen that shows exactly where every cat has gone and moved snow, and what terrain features are still untouched.

“It’s an ongoing, developing technology. But it’s extremely accurate. It’s awesome,” Cherry said.

Six of Mammoth’s snowcats are equipped with this software. With digital maps uploaded to screens inside the cats, Cherry and his drivers work with that information in a way that mimics chess. They observe, contemplate, and strategize which slopes are still going to hold snow and for how long. Cherry and his team can forecast snow conditions weeks in advance so it becomes apparent which slopes aren’t going to make it. The slopes that are the next to go, Cherry and his team decide, are the ones that drivers will take snow from and redistribute towards those that will still provide decent Spring skiing. It’s challenging work, according to Cherry, and slopes with minimal snow get abandoned all the time—their organs getting transplanted to other, healthier parts of the mountain.

Which is when the magic happens. Snowcat operators will show up at 3 in the afternoon (when the snow is soft from the heat of the sun) and work until midnight before tapering mountain temperatures harden it into firm, fast skiing snow. They’ll follow the lidar maps on their screens and go to the exact pinpoint of snow that needs to get moved. They’ll farm that snow, push it out at night, and then groom it. But the way they farm it is where the process gets especially interesting.

The cut-away section of mountain next to the red lines shows snow farming in action. Cat drivers slice snow off the slope from top to bottom and move it where they want it. In this case, the snow will be moved down the hill in order to house Mammoth’s giant airbag jump. | Photo courtesy of Scott Cherry

Cherry describes the snow farming process as “typewriter-ing.” It starts with finding dirt. Snowcat operators grooming at night will relay to Cherry which slopes are hurting and which need more snow, and then Cherry will go out in a snowcat, typically the next morning, and farm snow for the drivers to shuffle around. He starts with a slope that has both moveable snow and dirt. This allows him to move the snow much more efficiently than if the snow was just sitting on more snow. Working from the top down, Cherry will go back in forth—like he’s driving his cat along the lines of a typewriter’s keyboard—gathering more snow and dirt as he descends each row. By the time he gets to the bottom, he may have a pile of farmed snow that’s 30-feet-high or higher.

“The better we are at farming the longer we’re able to hold onto our season,” Cherry said.

This blend of science and art—which allows one to move around snow as their mind sees fit—also comes into play with Mammoth’s Unbound terrain parks. Cherry said that it’s rare to see terrain parks open at ski areas this late into the Spring—let alone ones of Mammoth’s caliber with giant jumps and complex jib features. And, only a handful of ski areas still showcase 60 or 70-foot jumps every season.

With a background in building terrain parks, Cherry’s career eventually led him to Mammoth where he got to maximize his potential. When it comes to building a massive park or working with specifics for slopestyle events like Red Bull Recharged, Cherry and his crew will sometimes have to farm snow for 14 days before they can begin sculpting certain features. It takes lasting commitment and astute attention to detail to build Mammoth’s competition-grade features and terrain parks—which may not necessarily be noticeable at first glance when watching these competitions on YouTube.

“When you see those guys enjoy the product that you’ve spent every waking moment trying to get right, that makes it all worth it,” Cherry said.

Scott Cherry loves his job and it shows. How else would Mammoth swindle Mother Nature into staying open for skiing and riding until Memorial Day? 

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