FRISCO, Colo. — They're the behind-the-scenes employees whose work is taken for granted, but whose performance can make or break opening-day records. Without them, the ski industry would exist in a very different way.
The snowmakers of Summit County's ski areas shape the slopes and create the snow to make skiing and riding enjoyable for recreation. The times they frequent the mountains make them largely unseen by those who use the mountains.
"This is an unglamorous, dirty, hard job and I have a ton of respect and passion for it," said Frank Worsham, snowmaking operations controller at Keystone Resort. "In a way, we are the snow gods."
Worsham's passion for snowmaking is mirrored by nearly all of the crew members of local snowmaking teams; those who can't brave the elements don't last long. Most snowmakers describe themselves as extreme-minded individuals.
"We're a really rough and tumble crew," said Joshua Morrison, lead snowmaker at Keystone. "We're all pretty extreme people that take pride in what we do. We embrace the harsh elements and the danger of our job because we are the ones that bring all of the fun to Summit County. So many people depend on us and don't even realize we exist."
Providing trails for members of the public to enjoy is what several snowmakers say they enjoy the most. At the same time, the pressure to create quality terrain can be intimidating for rookie snowmakers who find it challenging to overcome the steep learning curve.
"The first couple of months you are very upset at yourself the whole time," said Michael Ostrout, snowmaker for Copper Mountain. "Through time and experience you learn how to slow it down and work more efficiently — it definitely takes time in the machine to feel comfortable. It's not easy — you're trying to provide something for the public, so there's a lot of pressure."
Since the learning curve is so steep, ski areas struggle with retention. A returning snowmaker is considered very valuable.
"This is a 90-day job for first-year snowmakers, and they are the best they can be on the last day of work," Worsham said. "A second-year snowmaker is extremely valuable, but they can't always stick around and find work in the county after their time at Keystone. It can be very hard for them to figure out employment after the season."
Finding work after the snowmaking season is one of the challenges these unsung heroes of the mountain face. Worsham estimates that more than 50 percent of first-year snowmakers can't find work and have to either go home or spend the rest of the year unemployed.
"No ski area does enough for these guys and they have the most important job, in my opinion, on the whole mountain," Worsham said. "If it weren't for snowmaking and the guys that are unseen that go out there in the middle of the night during extreme weather and temperatures, there would be no ski industry, no recreation and all of the other jobs on the mountain would not be supported."
Snowmakers like Morrison, though, have enrolled in a program offered by Keystone that provides work to snowmakers after the season, which ends for most at the end of January.
"I'll continue to work here after snowmaking season doing general maintenance around the mountain," Morrison said.
Worsham too, though he considers himself an exception to most, transfers to the ski patrol department after snowmaking season.
"After snowmaking season I start working for the ski patrol, and then in the summer there are special snowmaking projects and maintenance that I get involved in. For me it's a year-round job with the exception of a six-week break," he said.
Worsham spends his shift in the control room, where he communicates with his snowmaking crew out on the slopes, monitoring the humidity, temperature, quality of snow and snow guns. The job, he says, is never black and white; every day is different with its own set of problems.
"We have this motto: Adapt, improvise and overcome challenges," Worsham said. "We all need to communicate or everything falls apart."
It's all business while the crew works, but underlying the quick conversations over the walkie-talkies is a bond that binds them all.
"I'm one of them," Worsham said. "I ski, raft, go to concerts with these guys and they are all my friends and I value them very much."
Their camaraderie is rooted in the difficulty of the job.
"Snowmaking is like nothing else in this world," Worsham said. "There are a lot of responsibilities out there, working in the elements, in the dark — the last thing we ever want is one of our guys getting hurt out there. These guys are all my friends so we never leave here without a plan. Every day is different and we really have to look at what's going on."
Information from: Summit Daily News, http://www.summitdaily.com/