Last winter, Vermont's Killington ski mountain resort ran a two-page magazine advertisement picturing slopes and trees under a prodigious dumping of snow. "Was it God," the caption asked, "or was it Dave Lacombe?" A framed copy of the ad hangs over a filing cabinet in Lacombe's cluttered Killington office. A waggish colleague affixed a yellow Post-it note inscribed with a message from God: "David, Finally somebody recognizes our talents."
At 36, Lacombe is snowmaking's master blaster. Killington, the biggest ski resort in the East, relies on him to whiten 552 acres of trails from October to April and to keep them blanketed throughout the balmy interludes imposed by Vermont's fickle climate. "Snowmaking is our lifeblood," says Killington president Allen Wilson. "Without Lacombe, we'd be out of business."
Last year, according to Snow Country magazine, Killington was the top snow producer in the East. Like its competitors, Killington employs every possible marketing tool to lure patrons onto its lifts. Every major ski area has snowmaking equipment and crews, but no one covers as big an area for as long a season as Lacombe does. With his work shirt, down vest and droll delivery, the foremost professor of snowflakes could be comedian Tim Allen's younger brother. He is a 20-year veteran of his craft, having joined Killington's night shift in 1977 as a high school senior. "I wasn't good for much in class the next morning," he says. He learned instead the alchemy of snowmaking, and after graduating from high school, he stayed on at Killington and eventually worked his way up to the top job. In those backward days, he and his colleagues sprayed the slopes using cumbersome black rubber hoses. The best they could do was to cover bald spots with a granular substance that
skiers call crud.
Today Lacombe applies silky layers of man-made snow that are almost indistinguishable from natural snow. His expertise has earned him the nickname Mother Nature. He has been recruited to make snow for winter carnivals at Dartmouth College, the Vermont state capitol grounds and New York City's Central Park. "There's no magic involved," he says. "You can make snow on your back porch with a plant mister if it's cold enough."
For 35 consecutive years Killington has opened before its East Coast rivals. "That's a reputation you don't want to relinquish," Lacombe says. "I start worrying about it in August. I don't sleep the night before we start up. Too many things can go wrong." He extended the streak last fall by producing enough snow to open Cascade, Killington's topmost trail, on Oct. 4. A thousand or so eager beavers showed up over four days for early-bird skiing even as golfers traversed green fairways below. The rumor of snow lured one diehard all the way from Ohio. As always, Lacombe drove his pickup truck up to congratulate his crew, then skied a few runs on his own. His critical assessment: The counterfeit snow was as fluffy as January's finest.
Lacombe's autumn offering signaled the start of New England's ski season. As usual, the snow melted a few days after fulfilling its promotional purpose. Three weeks of disconcerting warmth followed. Finally, on Oct. 30, Lacombe's consulting meteorologist promised that the mercury would drop the next day. Lacombe worked the phones in a state of high anticipation. His band of deputies saw to all the urgent errands—welding pipes, mustering an arsenal of 55 snow guns, firing up air compressors—in preparation for a manufactured Halloween blizzard. They clearly relished the prospect. "We'll be starting the snow guns with big smiles on our faces," Lacombe said. "Playing with water in the winter can be brutal. But it's a job like no other. We get to see the sunrise and the northern lights. And there's great satisfaction in covering the trails with rolling carpets of velvety snow."
Lacombe had sketched his battle plan in coded colors on a topographic map tacked to his wall. He would start at Cascade and work downward as far as temperatures permitted. By Thanksgiving the mountain would look like a half-iced cake. By Christmas, snow would blanket all 177 trails. From then on Lacombe's army would work around the clock, seven days a week, continually replenishing the 44 miles of groomed skiing surface. "Snow gets old," Lacombe says. "It needs to be cultivated, like a garden."
Lacombe waters his garden with plumbing suited to a city. Ninety-three miles of pipe and 41 miles of hose supply 11.5 million gallons of water a day to 200 snow guns. In all, he has 900 portable and 500 stationary snow guns he can fire up. The water is drawn from Killington's own reservoir and pond. The patented snow guns, which Lacombe helped design, are the Alpine equivalent of fire hoses; they each blast an average of 50 gallons per minute into 75-foot plumes of flakes. Every two hours, day and night, workers wearing snowsuits and crampons nimbly descend steep slopes to reposition the guns. Lacombe himself is always on call, except when he takes time off to go ice fishing. "I guess it's an addiction to frozen things," he says.
All sorts of things can go wrong on the mountain. A burst pipe can wash the snow off a trail or, worse, a fallen tree can shut off the power. "Stationary water freezes within minutes," Lacombe says. "There's panic on the hill." On these occasions—the snowmaking equivalent of a code-red crisis—Team Lacombe scrambles to dig out buried hoses frozen like 50-foot spaghetti strands and move them to a shed with a heated floor. It takes 12 hours to thaw the hoses, air-blast them dry and restore them to the mountain. Lacombe's hard-wired control room could pass for the north woods version of the USS Enterprise. Hundreds of colored lights indicate the status of valves and snow guns. A printer spews hourly updates on water flow, pump pressure and air temperature in six locations. Computer monitors offer everything from three-dimensional schematics of remote pumping stations to lists of the size and manufacturer of individual bolts. "The control room is a very
tense place," Lacombe says. "I try to spend as little time here as possible. My real office is out there."
At least once a day, Lacombe skis the mountain, pausing to appraise handfuls of snow. In the end, there is no replacement for the connoisseur's touch. If a snowball turns gray, for example, he knows his product is too wet. "It's a fine line," he says. "It should be dry, but not too dry."