Skiing & Riding

Faces of Sun Valley: Dennis Harper - Sun Valley’s Snowmaking Farmer

It’s not bravado or even exaggeration to say Sun Valley has long been known for having the best snowmaking in the business. It’s simply the truth, and it’s a big part of why Baldy is so beloved.

No matter what Mother Nature throws at the mountains of the West each winter, you know you can always carve sweet turns at Sun Valley. That’s because during those times when Mother Nature doesn’t want to play nice, when snow is replaced by sunshine or rain, the snowmaking team at Sun Valley is tasked with doing the work for her. It’s work they take great pride and passion in—much to the delight of us skiers and snowboarders.

Snowmaking is a science, it’s also an art form, an engineering marvel, a blessing, a miracle and a necessity in our ever-changing climate. But if you ask Dennis Harper, who runs the Snowmaking Department for Sun Valley, to describe himself he simple says, “I’m a snowmaker.”

He’ll also tell you he’s a farmer.

The Sun Valley story for Dennis starts with ski trips up from his Southern Idaho farm. In between raising sugar beets, wheat, barley and three girls near the Utah border, Dennis and his wife, Michelle, would come up to ski or snowmobile in the mountains around Sun Valley. Married since they were both teenagers, Dennis promised his young bride that he’d retire from farming and they’d move to the mountains when he was 40.

It took a few years longer than planned, but eventually they did just that. Dennis first applied to Sun Valley to drive a snowcat as part of the grooming team. After putting in his application, Dennis went back down south to help during the harvest. That’s when it dawned on him that driving a snowcat would be a lot like driving a tractor, and he’d spent enough time “driving around at four miles an hour,” he joked.

So Dennis switched his first job choice over to snowmaking. That was 18 years ago, he now runs the department and has clearly found his ideal job.

“It’s the best job on the mountain,” Dennis said, from his office behind the River Run Lodge. “I just enjoy the challenge of it, and the reward of creating a surface that makes people happy, that they can enjoy.”

“Snow farming” is a term Dennis hears a lot, and he admits there are definitely some similarities between building ski runs and farming.

Snowcats and tractors are pretty similar. They groom surfaces into even rows. The snowguns are essentially different versions of irrigation equipment for farms—except making snow uses much less water than growing food. There’s a lot of technology, a lot of maintenance, and it’s all about adapting to whatever weather Mother Nature serves up.

Temperature, however, is the most important element for making snow. Dennis explained that snowmakers are always talking about the “wet temperature,” which takes into account the humidity. But, ultimately, it all comes down to how cold it gets at night.

While anything under freezing can work, the “colder the better,” Dennis said. “For our system to be most productive the temperature was around 12°. Now (with the transition over to some new Rubis Evo snowguns) we can be equally productive in the low-20°s.”

The essence of making snow, as Dennis explained, is that, “We’re trying to break up water molecules and get them to freeze before they hit the ground.”

While it may sound simple, making snow is much more complex for man than it is for Mother Nature, as Dennis fondly recalled from one of his first seasons on the job.

“We had been making snow 24 hours a day for weeks, and then we had a 10” storm hit,” Dennis said. “That’s when I realized the snowmaking equipment the Big Boy has is much more powerful than ours. I felt pretty insignificant.”

There are 560 automatic snowguns on Baldy, along with 30 manual or moveable Raknik guns and 110 weather stations. As of this season, 208 of the stationary guns have been converted to Rubis Evo models.
These new guns are not only 10-feet taller than the old guns, but they’re also remarkably more efficient. They make more snow, in less time, using far less energy and can be more productive at higher temperatures. The new Rubis Evo snowguns have been so successful at Sun Valley that Baldy has been used as a model for snowmaking success at the National Ski Area Association conference.

“We’re always trying to improve and find ways we can do things better,” Dennis said.

It’s an attitude instilled by the late Earl Holding. Sun Valley’s former owner had Baldy’s snowmaking system, which was first installed in the early 1970s, upgraded to an automated system in 1989. And the resort has been continuously upgrading and improving the system ever since.

“Mr. Holding was so far ahead of his time that we’re still ahead of most ski areas with our system,” Dennis said.

It isn’t easy to be one of the best in any business. When asked about how Sun Valley maintains its snowmaking excellence, Dennis said there were a few key factors.

First and foremost comes effort. A system moving water all over a mountain the size of Baldy requires a lot of maintenance. It isn’t easy to push water up 3,200 vertical feet. The snowmaking team starts working on the system the day after the season ends and doesn’t stop until snowmaking stops in the late winter/early spring.
“All the work we do all summer long sets us up for success in the winter,” Dennis said. “You’ve got to pay attention to every detail.”

Of course, all of Sun Valley’s world-class snowmaking equipment is useless unless it has a good team to operate it. That’s why Dennis said the snowmaking and snow grooming teams deserve a lot of credit.

“We work pretty much hand-in-hand,” Dennis explained. “We put it down and they move it around. We team up to make sure we’ve got a good surface.”

The snowmaking season on Baldy usually begins about October 25th and kicked off  operations this season earlier this week. The system can produce 20 different types of snow, although Dennis joked that there are really only three types: “Wet, sort of wet and dry.”

Somewhere in that range is the perfect snow condition for every skiing and riding preference. The goal of Dennis and the snowmaking team at Sun Valley is to make sure there’s something to make everyone happy, with or without any help from Mother Nature.

“Snowmakers are proud of the surfaces we create,” Dennis said. “We can see that what we do is important to the community. We want to make sure you have a good surface to enjoy.”

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