AlpineZone Challenge 2014 – Brian Heon of Wildcat

By AlpineZone News |
Oct 28 2014 - 11:40 AM

The AlpineZone Ski Area Challenge was designed to provide a method for our forum members to get official answers to skiing-related questions directly from a ski area representative. Brian Heon, General Manager at Wildcat in Jackson, NH, took the AlpineZone Ski Area Challenge and provided the following responses on 10/10/2014:

deadheadskierBrian, which specific trails received new snowmaking equipment this summer? CoolMike added to this, Last year was an operationally difficult for Wildcat. What exactly went wrong with the upper mountain snow making? What, specifically, are you doing at Wildcat to improve for the upcoming season?

Brian Heon: 


Towards the early / middle of November last season, Wildcat had some unseasonably cold temperatures.  We saw a few nights with temps in the single digits and decided that we could not pass up this opportunity to make snow.  While making snow on the Upper Lynx trail, we quickly began to lose water pressure and flow on our upper mountain system.  In retrospect this was due to a failure with a booster pump and motor.  As our upper mountain system began to lose pressure and flow, the cold water and 10 degree air temperature began to freeze the water that we were trying to move through the Upper Lynx pipe.  As our pressure and flow continued to fall, the water in the Upper Lynx line began to freeze almost instantly. The Upper Lynx line froze up while one of the pumps was still trying to move water through it and when there was nowhere else for the water to go, the water “hammered” back down hill and cracked the housing of one of our booster pumps.  Due to lead times and the fact that this was a very specifically designed pump, replacing it last season was just not possible.  Having 1 pump on our upper mountain system, that was designed to run with 2, proved to be very inefficient.

What improvements are we doing this years……… Where to begin!  With the help of Peak Resorts, Wildcat Mountain is just wrapping up the largest snowmaking upgrade that our resort has ever seen.  Four milestones that highlight our project are:

  1.  A new state of the art booster pump house built from the ground up!  New motors, new pumps, new building, new control system.  This pump house is the key to our upper mountain snow making system.  This new pump house will allow us to double the amount of water pressure that we had at the summit as well as increase our flow by 33%.  Not to mention the reliability of having new pumps and motors.  Here’s an interesting bit of info….. This new pump house took 8-9 weeks to build and the old one we replaced, took 30 minutes to take down!
  2. 55,000 feet of new pipe (that’s over 10 miles of pipe)!   100% of this pipe replaced old dilapidated pipe.  Out with the old and in with the new!  This new pipe has an additional 200 water and air hydrants compared to the old pipe, this makes our snowmaking operation a lot more flexible.  Over 50 of these hydrants replace “in-ground” hydrants that were buried in the middle of the trail and required ‘digging out’ in order to access!
  3.  227 new high output / energy efficient snowmaking guns (this is in addition to the 70 ground guns and 20 tower guns we had last year). 90% of these guns will be permanently mounted meaning our snowmakers will spend less time moving equipment and more time making snow.  These guns also use a fraction of the compressed air that our old technology used.  These new guns require less air and can move more water.  This allows us to be very “green” / efficient when it comes to our diesel consumption and carbon footprint here in the National Forest, while producing the maximum amount of snow.
  4. Construction of work road to access our new pump house.  To say that Wildcat had a work road would be like calling a goat path a super highway!  A reliable way to get the 1.6 miles to the pump house just simply did not exist.  The work road itself is an impressive piece of engineering, but its purpose was to allow reliable access to the home of our new pump house, as well as a way to maintain it. The work road took 4 weeks to build, and required moving almost 2,000 CY of material.


Smellytele:  What are your plans on trail opening this year? Which trails will you try to open the soonest?

Brian Heon:

  1. Priority #1 – Lynx top to bottom
  2. Priority #2 – Polecat, top to bottom
  3. Priority #3 – Upper Catapult, Middle Wildcat, Bobcat
  4. Priority #4 – Snowcat / Wild Kitten

xwhaler: Do you anticipate being the 1st to open in NH and last to close every year? Possibly trying to compete with Sunday River in Maine and Killington in Vermont on 1st to open in the East?

Savemeasammy added to this, Wildcat has some great advanced terrain – which is appealing to those of us who want to make early season turns. It would seem as though your high-elevation location above the notches would give you an advantage over Killington and Sunday River. Could this be a possibility? I for one would spend the extra half hour in the car to ski a more challenging run at Wildcat than what Killington offers early-season.

Brian Heon:
We would certainly like to be one of the first to open and last to close! Killington and Sunday River certainly have impressive operations, and like all resorts….. we are all a bit different in what our strengths and weakness are.  Killington and Sunday River both work hard to offer skiing as early as possible and have certainly been able to deliver.

In a nuts shell, Wildcat’s snowmaking philosophy is:  we will start making snow as early as possible and remain open as late as possible.  We would also like to open with a quality product that offers our early season guests top to bottom skiing (2000 ft. vertical) using our high speed quad.

dlague: I have read that the beginner lift has had issues on more than one occasion and the Bobcat Triple which serves terrain park features is slow which encourages most people to take the express which in turn causes trails to get skied off quickly higher up. Are there plans to improve the lifts serving some of the lower mountain terrain?

Brian Heon:
I am unaware of any long term issues that we had with the Snowcat or Bobcat lift last season. The Bobcat and Tomcat chairs runs at 450 feet per minute, this is the maximum speed that these chairs can run (Snowcat chair runs 325 feet per minute).  Our #1 priority this summer was to improve the upper mountain snowmaking allowing us to offer the best product top to bottom.  At this point, there is no talk of any lower mountain lift upgrades.  But with that said, we do plan on running the Bobcat and/or Tomcat a bit more often.

dlague: With respect to Terrain Parks – each time we are there with our kids they mention that there are not many challenging features. Are there plans to improve this aspect of Wildcat or is this purposefully done that way? Deadheadskier adds: I’ve always felt Wildcat could benefit by adding a conveyor loading systems to both the Tomcat and Bobcat lifts to decrease ride time. Anything the mountain can do to encourage greater utilization of the lower mountain would benefit the upper trails which get skied off so quickly.

Brian Heon:
We have positioned the Wildcat Terrain Park as a bit more of an entry level terrain park and this season we plan on doing the same.  With the combination Attitash / Wildcat pass, we find that most park riders have really enjoyed the ever expanding Abenaki Park at Attitash.

I agree that loading conveyors can improve lift efficiency but there has been no talk of adding a loading conveyor to any of the Wildcat lifts. Our snowmaking improvements should help maintain better conditions on the upper mountain trails.

MadMadWorld: Where are you at with the regeneration zone under the Tomcat chair?

Brian Heon: 

In conjunction with the Forest Service we are trying to get this area (5-6 acres) back to its original state.  In 1998 all of the evergreen trees were cut leaving only the white birch standing.  Over time the white birch trees have died off leaving a desolate hole in the forest.  With the help of Mother Nature, this area is flourishing with new growth, but we have a long way to go before it reopens for skier traffic.  This area was last skied in 2008.

Smellytele: To go with the first to open/staying open late – Any thought on putting another lift back at the top from half way up like used to be there? A surface lift might come in handy on wind hold days.

Brian Heon:
The first “piece of the puzzle” in opening early and closing late was to upgrading our snowmaking system.  Improving the quality, quantity, speed and efficiency that we make snow on our mountain is our #1 priority.  We feel that with elevation and cooler temps in our favor, that we can successfully offer a quality top to bottom product for our guest early and late into the season.

ThinkSnow: Has the mountain done any preventative work to avoid having snow making issues that it did during the 2013-2014 season when only a handful of trails were open during peak season?

Brian Heon:
Yes!  Our $2 million snowmaking project is solely based on the fact that we needed to avoid issues such as last year and have a safe, fast, efficient way to make snow at Wildcat for years to come.  Please see details above.

Brad J: Has there been any thought to blow snow on gondiline ( I know that’s not what its now called, but skiing Wildcat since 1966 that’s what I and a lot of people call it!) top to bottom, it really is the premier trail on the mountain and should be treated as such, lots of snow no grooming.

Brian Heon:
With our new snow making system in place, we certainly are going to have a lot more options on the upper mountain.  In a perfect world, our priority off the summit will be Lynx, Polecat, and Catapult.  I might even venture to say that Lift Lion would be next over Upper Wildcat….. we’ll see!  To simply answer your question, Yes! 

deadheadskier: Any long term plans for the Bobcat Lodge other than essentially being a locker room for racers as it’s currently being used?

I would think the space between the Lodge and the Old Gondola base terminal would be a great spot for an outdoor bar area similar to the Umbrella Bars at Killington. It would have a great view up to look at people ripping The Chute and be much more ski in / ski out friendly than heading down and over the bridge to the main lodge. I would think for weekends and the spring, such a facility would be a huge hit. Just offer a handful of drafts and some basic food offerings and clean bathrooms inside, and it would get used.

bobcat lodge at Wildcat


Brian Heon:
There is nothing yet “set in stone” however I do often dream of reopening the lodge with a huge umbrella bar out front!  There is definitely room for future expansion and utilization of the Bobcat Lodge space but nothing is in the works for the immediate future.

deadheadskier: It has been mentioned here on these forums and elsewhere (perhaps even your GM blog) that historically part of the problem with Wildcat’s snowmaking has been that the temperature of the water supply is too cold. I get that there are optimum air temperatures and humidity levels for making snow, but I’ve never heard that the temperature of the water supply is part of the equation. Can you elaborate on this?

The reason I ask is that there are other very cold mountains in the east that do an exceptional job at making snow (Stowe, Sugarloaf, Tremblant) and I would presume that their water supplies aren’t appreciably warmer than Wildcats.

Brian Heon:
Water supply and temperature is an interesting dynamic in a snowmaking operation.  Many resorts spend significant money to actually cool their water.  As you know – when water leaves a snowmaking gun, it needs to cool below freezing in order to transition from a liquid to…snow!  The closer this water is to freezing – the less energy it takes to cool and make snow.

Water is a pretty incredible substance.  Without getting into too much detail, there is an important phenomenon to note when thinking about pond/lake temperature.  As water cools towards 39.4 Degrees F, or 4 Degrees C, it sinks and the pond turns over.  Generally speaking – in a normally shaped pond, the entire mass of water must reach 39.4 degrees F before ice forms on the surface.

You can imagine that the amount of energy required to cool water in a 120 million gallon pond would be quite a bit bigger than in a 2 million gallon pond.  This is where Wildcat’s small, stream-fed pond falls in line with some of its competition.

Early season – this is a blessing!  Wildcat’s water cools very quickly.  The pond has two sources, Thompson Brook and the Peabody River.  Thompson Brook starts around 4,000’ and the Peabody drainage comes out of Tuckerman Ravine around 5,000’.  These fast moving, undulating, low volume sources allow water to super-cool well below freezing.  The water molecules still remain in liquid form because they are moving rapidly across one another.

While some of the larger snowmaking reservoirs take much longer for a cold snap to affect them – the impact at Wildcat is nearly instantaneous.  For most of our winter season, our pond water is below 32 degrees. Wildcat actually runs 3 ‘ice-eaters’ that circulate the pond water to keep it from freezing solid!

The snowmaking technology that is being installed at Wildcat this year has been specifically designed and engineered to account for Wildcat’s unique, extremely cold mid-season water supply temperature.





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