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Engineering the Snow at Arctic Valley


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Just east of Anchorage, Arctic Valley Ski Area provides skiers views of the city and Cook Inlet.

Photo by Bryan Sooter

Thanks to a team of fresh engineering graduates, Anchorage may soon have a world-class ski destination overlooking downtown.

Last school year, six engineering students at University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) focused their senior capstone projects on infrastructure improvements at Arctic Valley Ski Area, a popular ski spot in the Chugach Mountains. In the two-semester capstone course, seniors pitch actual designs to actual clients, making connections that can lead directly to careers.

Professor Osama Abaza has taught the course since 2009, and has developed strong partnerships with public engineering entities like Department of Transportation, Alaska State Parks and Anchorage Water and Waste Water Utilities. Last year, though, saw a new addition. Anchorage Ski Club, the nonprofit that operates volunteer-run Arctic Valley, showed up to ask for artificial snow. Specifically, What would it take to guarantee one foot of snow by December 1 at Arctic Valley?

Harry Need, ski patrol volunteer and former board member of Anchorage Ski Club, has big visions for reinventing Arctic Valley.

“What if Anchorage was a ski town?” he asked. With reliable snow in town, he said, Anchorage could attract more tourists and even the Alpine Ski World Cup, boosting hotel occupancy through the winter “We could really have a significant change in the way we think about Anchorage and the sport of skiing,” he said. “We could have Seawolf skiers standing on a podium in a spot where they can actually see their own campus.”

Need pitched his idea to Anchorage Ski Club. The nonprofit, though enthusiastic, lacked the expertise and infrastructure to meet his vision. Without a current snowmaking system, Arctic Valley is blanketed entirely in natural snow. While that provides an authentic skiing experience, it also limits the park’s potential. Professional skiers need reliable, artificial snow to compete.

Image courtesy of Bryan Sooter

2017 UAA engineering graduates, from left, Kyle Alvarado, Jesse Miller, James Matthews, Bryan Sooter, Isaac Williams and Julia Mackey worked on the snowmaking project at Arctic Valley.

Through talks with the university, Need secured technical expertise for the ski club while providing career experience for students. UAA’s transportation and power division assigned its diesel technology students to repair Arctic Valley’s snowcat as a course assignment. In the College of Engineering, Abaza added Anchorage Ski Club to his list of clients for the semester. When he presented last year’s seniors with nine capstone options, snowmaking stood out.

“This was pretty high on my list,” said Bryan Sooter, a self-professed “former ski bum” who served as team lead. “For a city the size of Anchorage to have that kind of skiing 15 minutes up the road is pretty unheard of.”

In the first semester, students simply collected data  — topography, climate, water volume in the nearby creeks. Sooter scheduled a group tour of Alyeska’s technical facilities to get an idea of their project’s expanse. Students switched to design in the second semester and, at the end of the year, the team of four civil engineers and two mechanical engineers submitted a 129-page document (available online) detailing their plan.

While classmates on other projects had to meet strict state and federal guidelines, “we were given a blank canvas essentially,” Sooter said.

Image courtesy of Bryan Sooter

Team members measure stream velocity at Arctic Valley Ski Area to design a water catchment system for snowmaking.

They suggested a system of four maneuverable-but-pricier snow guns and four stationary-but-cheaper snow towers. To power the towers, they designed a piping system and a catchment basin that would reliably provide water through the winter.  

Money was their biggest constraint. “We’re trying to propose this to a nonprofit organization that doesn't necessarily have a steady income,” said James Matthews, a civil engineering student who served as water resources lead.

“[Snowmaking] is one of the largest expenses ski resorts probably take on,” Sooter added. “Everybody down south is just pumping millions and millions into their systems.”

To alleviate costs, their final design suggested a basic year-one starting system with several phases of expansion, all using available water. They even filled out city permits to gain water rights.

Photo by James Matthews

Kyle Alverado, left, and Jesse Miller with a SMI Standard PoleCat snow gun at Alyeska Resort.

“[Abaza] assigned me a crack squad of students that came up with a very elegant, practical, staged solution,” Need said of the project.

All six seniors graduated in 2017, but their capstone experience paid quick dividends.

“You don’t get taught in your undergraduate how to conduct a snowmaking system. It doesn’t come up,” Matthews said. But, when interviewing with Army Corps of Engineers, “lots of questions they asked me … I was able to refer back to my experience with senior design.” He now works for the Corps in Buffalo, New York, closer to his hometown in Eastern Pennsylvania. The chance to work on a snowmaking system as a senior project provided an emblematic ending to his Alaska education.

“It’s definitely been a unique college experience and I’m so thankful I came up here,” he noted.

With a design in hand, Anchorage Ski Club has a blueprint for improving its infrastructure and creating a world-caliber ski area in Anchorage.

“It’s been a really cool experience for Arctic Valley to see all the different ways that this funky little nonprofit ski hill can connect with the university, and all the different ways the university can leverage expertise and applied learning opportunities in service of the community,” Need noted.

“And all this was just off an idea of what does the university need and what does the community need, and what can we do together.”

 
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