Most field service people are in the business of fixing a thing — a piece of equipment, appliance, or cable line. Barrett Burghard services a mountain.
Burghard is the director of snow services for Heavenly ski resort near Lake Tahoe, on the California/Nevada border. His job is to ensure that the mountain is skiable throughout the season — that means laying 120 inches of man-made snow a year, and re-grooming runs nightly.
The SmartVan spoke to Burghard to ask what, exactly, goes into upkeeping a mountain. (Also read: The Business of Servicing Ski Lifts.)
The SmartVan: So, “director of snow services” — that means you “fix” the mountain, right?
Burghard: Well, we fix a lot of equipment, too — there’s a lot that goes into it. We’ve got two or three kinds of snow-making guns, plus all the air hydrants and water hydrants — there’s a thousand sets spread all around the mountain, and hundreds of miles of metal pipes, some above ground and some below. Then there’s four pump houses with these big, giant 750-horsepower air compressors that take compressed air and send it through all that piping.
So then we hook up the hose to it with a ball-valve on it, and that sends the air to the gun — there’s also water pumps taking water and spreading it out through all the miles of piping up through a fire hose. That compressed air and water comes into the gun, and the air shoots out from behind and breaks the water up into tiny particles, and those freeze as they fall to the ground.
So we do a lot of maintenance on those centrifugal air compressors — they run some really tight clearances — plus the motors. Those are the backbone of the snow-making system.
So the snow-makers are just set up like lawn sprinklers?
Yeah, we’ll set up in a place, hook up to the 480-volt power, hook the hose up, and basically hit the “start” button. The compressor turns on, and you start making snow. You can set it from 0 to 10 for quality. We make snow through the night, and then have to move around from spot to spot. We have a lot of automatic “on/off” timers, too.
Then you’ve got an actuator, which is electronically controlled, and sends more or less water to the gun as the temperature changes. So we’ll do a “gun check,” and then in that hour before we come back to that gun, there might be minute changes in the temperature — it’ll drop by a degree — and that affects the [snow settings], so the actuator can adjust that automatically.
Then with the other guns, you drag those around with snowmobiles or snow-Cats — drag them to different parts of the mountain and adjust the snow. Right now in the early season, if it’s cold throughout the day we’ll make snow on the trails that aren’t open yet. The fan guns are a little quieter, so we actually have a lot of places where people love that — it keeps refreshing the snow all day. We come back every hour — one crew watches the California side of the mountain, and one crew watches the Nevada side.
What’s the hardest part of the job?
Just going through all those fan guns, the actuators, the contacters … In a big snow year, you’ll get that snow creep that can bend the hydrants over, or the Cats knock them over, and you have to go use a back-hoe to dig them up. Like today we had to dig up a hydrant but we can’t get the back-hoe up there, so we had to dig by hand, six feet down, then fill it with drain-rock and dirt backfill. Usually a lot of that maintenance happens in the summer, but usually you get 30 or so hydrants you’ve got to [repair].
How many people are on your crew?
There are four people in the department year-round, and then about 40 in the winter. We’ve got one electrician, and a group of guys that go out to repair the hydrants and do maintenance, or change the oil on the motors.
What’s in your standard tool belt?
A crescent wrench, hammers to bang the ice off things, a pair of winter boots, a waterproof snow-making outfit, rubber-type gloves, a hardhat, an earpiece for the radio — the guns are really loud — a miner’s light for the hardhat, and propane torches to thaw things out.
What’s the strangest thing you have to deal with?
One time we had a guy driving out on the snowmobile dragging the gun hoses behind him, and it caught around a hydrant and pulled it right off the pump. We had a geyser shooting 60 feet in the air. And somehow he didn’t notice that and managed to pull another out, too, so now we had two geysers shooting 50, 60 feet in the air and we were panicking. I mean, that’s the major thing, when an air hydrant fails and you get this stuff shooting way up in the air. You’ve got to isolate it, get a safety on it, drain it out, shut it down, and then you can do the repairs.