Managing snowfall for maximum use is a precise science
By Marcy Stamper
When Methow Trails measures its Nordic trail system in inches — 7,603,200, to be exact — it’s not just a gimmick to make the network seem larger. The trails staff actually tend their 120 miles of trails by the inch, taking into account the effect of every rock, root and tree on the quality and longevity of snow on the ski trail.
“Even if we’re fortunate, with wonderful winters like last year, all of those preparations are beneficial,” said Jon Albright, trails manager. “And they’re vital — absolutely essential — if we go one and a half months without a snowstorm. Otherwise, we have bare patches and volunteers shoveling snow onto the trails.”
“We’re down to the actual refining of inches of trail,” said James DeSalvo, Methow Trails’ executive director. “Having that frame of mind has really improved our overall quality — and our ability to deal with low snow.”
Because of its year-round vigilance, today Methow Trails can open half of the trails with just 6 inches — total — of snow, said DeSalvo. Five years ago, they needed twice as much snow.
This attention to detail can help extend the winter, letting skiers glide along trails even after the snow has disappeared from the landscape around them. But Methow Trails staff are also explicitly taking a longer view, hoping to keep Nordic skiing viable in the Methow Valley as the climate changes.
“Low-snow contingencies” have been a key part of their planning for some time, said Albright. For example, they groom at the coldest time of day to avoid disrupting the precious snow. Grooming when it’s not frozen “uses up” more snow because the weight and heat of the grooming equipment compacts the snow, said Albright.
Less snow, and wetter
Climate models for this region predict not only less snow, but also wetter snow. Moisture content has a big effect on their ability to pack and groom the snow, since running heavy machinery on wet snow causes more damage than doing nothing at all, said Albright.
They employ a variety of strategies to manage existing trails and to create new ones that are adapted to climate change. While Methow Trails clears rocks and trims trees to create a smooth platform for snow on existing trails, when they create a new trail the staff actually angles the surface slightly toward the north. That adjustment decreases the amount of sun that hits the trail directly, helping to preserve the snow, said Albright.
Methow Trails has also been looking for places where the organization can acquire permits for new higher-elevation trails, on both public and private land, said DeSalvo. “We have to diversify our terrain for current and future uses to withstand climate variation,” he said.
These climate variations — large and small — require creativity and a nimble response. For example, a few years ago, with frigid temperatures but almost no snow, groomers shaved some of the ice on Patterson Lake to create a skiable surface, said DeSalvo.
Fat biking may be another component of the strategy for dealing with less snow. “You don’t need the snow base, but would people be willing to pay for a cold riding experience if it’s not all white?” said DeSalvo.
Methow Trails also focuses on opening up a wider canopy above the trails by trimming or removing trees. When trees are too close to the trail, snow lands on the branches — and not on the trail. Then, as the snow melts, it drips on the trail and freezes, said Albright.
“Debris” from trees, such as conifer needles and cones, forms dark areas in the snow that absorb, rather than reflect, the sun, causing the snow to melt more quickly. Creating a wider opening in the tree canopy is “one of the bigger bangs for our buck,” said Albright.
As a year-round trails organization that includes support of community vitality as part of its mission, today Methow Trails thinks beyond low-snow contingencies and instead talks about “contingencies for climate challenges.” “That includes fire — not just low snow,” said DeSalvo.
Trail planning will incorporate fire protection and safety, with trails used as fire breaks and as a safe place for firefighters to combat a fire, said DeSalvo. “We see trails as defensible space,” he said.
The cost of expert grooming
In addition to the on-the-ground work, Methow Trails relies on experienced groomers and high-end equipment to make the most of the snow.
The blade on the grooming machine allows a skilled operator to harvest snow, using the teeth on the blade to churn up snow and deposit it where it’s needed on the trail. Last year — looking ahead to less-snowy winters — Methow Trails purchased a bucket that attaches to the grooming equipment to move even larger quantities of snow.
All this equipment and expertise is not cheap. An average night of grooming — four groomers on an eight-hour shift, plus fuel and depreciation on the equipment — is $6,400, said DeSalvo.
But it’s getting attention — Nordic areas from around the country contact Methow Trails almost weekly for tips on grooming and trails management, said DeSalvo.
It is perhaps ironic that creating the optimal Nordic trails has its own environmental impacts. “It isn’t as green as it seems when you’re out there skiing, if you’re not thinking about the whole package,” said Albright. “It seems wholesome and environmentally sensitive, but to get you that gorgeous trail, there are certain environmental costs.”
Pisten Bullies — the primary grooming equipment — have fairly efficient diesel engines, although it may not seem that way, said DeSalvo. It takes about a gallon of diesel fuel to groom one mile of trail, with the groomers moving at an average speed of 8 miles per hour as they grind up compact snow and ice and set tracks.
Last year, Methow Trails had a record season, with 139 days of skiing. While there was good snowfall, the most significant factor was the dedicated trail maintenance, said DeSalvo. “We’re planning on fewer inches and refining the terrain to maximize every inch that falls,” he said.
“If the resource is scarce — in this case, snow — we have to manage it more carefully,” said Albright.