From the blog

The Swiss Army Knives of the Mountain


Saddleback Snowmakers: The Swiss Army Knives of the Mountain

By Liam McDonough, Snow Reporter & Marketing Assistant 


Snowmaking must be one of the most unique occupations a person could have. The snowmaking workforce is made up of hardy folk, whose passion is to make snow for others to enjoy. The intensity of this job is like no other. It requires extreme mental and physical abilities while undergoing some of the most extreme weather conditions in the continental United States. While at the summit of Saddleback, it is possible to have temps below -50 degrees Fahrenheit with wind chill. Most humans would stay as far away from the slopes as possible in that circumstance. However, our snowmakers charge right up the mountain to bless us with skiable trails. Each 12-hour shift (7:00-7:00) is staffed with three snowmakers and one supervisor. Without them, we would have nothing. No skiing, no après, no mountain employment, and most importantly, no Saddleback community.  


Snowmaking is essential for an extended ski season. It is the heart muscle of the mountain. The guns pump snow throughout our trails, like the human heart pumps blood throughout our arteries, keeping us and the ski season alive. The snowmaking system is complex, and it is important to monitor all aspects, also like the human heart. Let’s go through an anatomy lesson on Saddleback’s cardiovascular system. 


First, we have Saddleback Lake. Saddleback Lake is the water tank of our snowmaking operation. The best part is that it’s truly a full-circle, renewable system. Every drop of water that we take from the lake, trickles right back down to it, making the process environmentally friendly. Next, we have our pumphouses. As you could probably guess, water doesn’t magically flow from the lake to the headwall of Tightline. Our two pump houses are located at Saddleback Lake and behind the lodge. The pumphouse at the lake can send 4,000 gallons of water per minute to the lower part of the mountain, which has been extremely beneficial to us. The booster behind the lodge was built in 2004 and it can send 2,000 gallons per minute to the upper areas of the mountain. In 2020-2021, the year we re-opened, we invested $1.2 million into snowmaking. This season, 2021-2022, we have invested over $1.5 million into the snowmaking operation. Since reopening, Saddleback has invested almost $3 million into snowmaking improvements. 


The pumps send water to the machines that are responsible for the final step of the snowmaking process: the snow guns. Many mountains rely on fixed guns as the workhorse of their snowmaking operation. Saddleback uses some fixed guns, but we also have the liberty of our portable fans. This does increase the number of hours we put on our cats, but it is worth it because we can strategically place the fans on certain trails, enabling us to cover 85% of our terrain with man-made snow. 




Each step of the snowmaking process is chock-full of detailed, hands-on work. Which is the reason why we like to describe our crew as “Swiss Army knives”. The crew possesses skills such as perfectly rolling out a hose like a firefighter, climbing the mountain on a snowmobile like an X-Games athlete, fixing machines like a mechanic, and communicating effectively like a special forces team. However, the main reason our crew can accomplish so much is because of the passion, camaraderie, and pride each member shares. A love for the mountains and the ski community brings this group together. And after becoming a team last year, the chemistry is only moving in an upward trajectory, motivating the men and women of our snowmaking team to do this gritty job.


 Although there are glorious views, the job itself is not glorious and it is not glamorous. Yet, our snowmakers have some of the most pride about their achievements compared to any other department on the mountain. All of them harp on how it is the best job they have ever had. Snowmakers are immensely proud of what they do. It puts a smile on a snowmakers face when they see a smile on a stranger’s face, thanks to their snowmaking efforts. It takes a special person to participate in such a grueling and dangerous job just to provide enjoyment for people they do not know. Next time you’re at the mountain, take a second to analyze the snowmaking system and appreciate the work that goes into your ski day.