The slopes vaulted upward empty and unblemished, unfurled sheets of perfect white. Sunlight rolled down them in waves.
On the first day of winter, Tussey Mountain sat silent, save for the two-plus tons of red metal PistenBully trundling up and down its incline, grooming the slopes for the start of the season. At the top of Utah, the central slope and home to the quad chairlift, Mike Sheffer tucked his gloves on a ledge and looked out over Happy Valley. The view, about 500 feet up, can’t be beat, he said.
But even on a Wednesday like this, a Wednesday you could put on a Christmas card, the mountain doesn’t so much whisper as howls as you ascend up its facade.
“Even on a calm day down there,” he said, tugging his jacket around him and laughing, “it’s still windy up here.”
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Sheffer, who has worked in maintenance here the past two seasons, slid his fingers back in his gloves and hopped back on the ATV, descending a Donkey Kong-esque series of powdered levels and crags, over fresh deer tracks and past rows of trees separating the seven trails. Soon he’d return to checking the giant fans and snow guns leaning over them, and getting the mountain ready for the soft opening of its season on Friday.
Here, snow is always welcome. Otherwise, Sheffer just makes it.
“That’s what pushes out water and air and turns it into snow,” he said, pointing at the fans and snow guns. “Within two days, we can have a pile bigger than an 18-wheeler.”
It’s a big bed to make — about 10 to 20 inches deep — and takes a series of packing, grooming and snowmaking to get just right.
But according to Aaron Weyman, Tussey’s marketing director, it’s de rigueur in keeping the mountain safe and ready for action.
“What I learned a lot about is just the weather and the amount of snow it takes to open up a ski mountain,” said Weyman, who has been with Tussey for the past eight years. “You need a lot of snow not just to ski on, but for your lift lines, for the patrol, just to make everything safe. There’s a lot that goes into it that a lot of people don’t know about.”
Wishing for snow
Planning begins after the summer season ends and go-karts and mini-golf clubs are traded for skis and snowboards. For the upcoming season, the team revamped the tubing park, lengthening the runs and adding drainage to reduce mud and ice around entry areas.
But the big addition was a resurfaced lift. Weyman said the artificial surface, which will be able to keep up with six running lanes, will streamline getting visitors back to the top and will cut down on maintenance. Before, the snow-covered lift required frequent attention.
Sue Matalavage, the general manager, said they spent about $80,000 on renovations for the tubing park. Keeping the mountain operational — Matalavage estimated it employs about 180 people each season — takes a combination of planning, hard work and a little bit of luck from Mother Nature.
“There’s nothing like natural snow,” Matalavage said. “A snowfall will bring people out here like no other advertising in the world can do.”
Last winter, an unseasonably warm one for the area, the team saw a shortened season, clocking 63 days. Typically, Matalavage said, they’re about 90 days.
Warm days such as Wednesday — the high reached 37 degrees — also cuts down on the ability to make it snow. Then other variables such as dew point and humidity, Matalavage said, come into play. She estimated Tussey has spent more than $500,000 in the past five years on upgrading its snowmaking systems.
“It took us a long time to buy those, but we made that commitment,” she said.
The team tested its systems a few weeks ago. If the winter outlook forecasts hold and the mercury continues to dip, the team will spend less time crossing its fingers and more time out on the slopes.
Thousands flock to the mountain resting in the heart of Happy Valley, including school groups, Penn State kinesiology classes and diehards looking to get a run in during lunch. Matalavage said about 1,500 from school groups alone come through weekly.
“Skiing is a lifelong sport,” said Matalavage, for whom the mountain is a family affair. “My kids are all in their 20s, and we still ski together as a family.”
All three of her children have been involved with its operation in some form. Her two oldest are now snow sports instructors in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Beaver Creek, Colo. John, 21, manages Tussey’s terrain park, a hit with the younger kids.
But for Sheffer, 46, skiing remains a young person’s game. For now, he’s just fine with playing Jack Frost.
“I don’t ski. I’m too old. I’m afraid of breaking something,” he said, smiling. “But I love what I do. Being out here making snow when it’s really cold and stuff — I don’t mind it. Especially when you’re up here.”