Each winter season, Boyce Park -- the closest ski area to Pittsburgh -- has been the last to open its slopes and trails and the first to close in recent years.
That is likely to change this coming season, thanks to the purchase of 11 fully automated TechnoAlpin T40 portable snowmaking machines that will complement the park's current snowmaking equipment, said Jim Shultz of Mountain Works Inc.
Of, course, the weather will have to cooperate. The Allegheny County-owned park in Plum doesn't have the snowmaking advantage of the resorts in the Laurel Highlands, where temperatures frequently are at least 5 to 8 degrees colder.
Boyce Park also doesn't have the benefit of the chilled water the resorts use. It uses municipal water that isn't as cold. Still its snowmaking system should work better this season because it installed 3,000 feet of new water pipe during the summer to replace lines that were leaking.
"We're hoping for an 86-day season," said Mr. Shultz, who worked his snowmaking magic at Hidden Valley in recent years. He designed Boyce Park's snow tubing area and formerly owned and operated the SnoZone Snowboard and Tube Park in Finleyville.
Despite the added expense of improvements, Boyce will keep its lift ticket fees and other charges the same as last year -- making it by far the most affordable place to ski, snowboard or snowtube in the region. It's an ideal place for beginners and for family outings.
Boyce charges adults $14 on weekends, $10 on weekdays. The prices for children age 6 to 17 is $12 and $8, respectively. Seniors 60 and older pay $11 and $7.
Group lessons are $10. A rental ski package of skis, boots and poles is $8.75; snowboards and boots are $25.
The new TechnoAlpin machines are equipped with weather instrumentation that enables them to adapt to changing conditions with no manual adjustments. They can make a lot of high-quality snow in a short amount of time.
When the Buncher Co. of Pittsburgh bought Hidden Valley in 2007, it purchased 30 TechnoAlpin machines. The amount and quality of the snow they made and the overwhelming positive feedback from guests prompted Buncher to buy 50 more TechnoAlpins for the 2008 season. The resort now has the most TechnoAlpin machines in the country.
"We'll space the TechnoAlpins every 150 feet with one of the older snowmaking machines in between," Mr. Shultz said about Boyce. "We'll reconfigure the nozzles on the older machines to improve the quality of the snow they make."
Mountain Works has a three-year contract with the county to manage the slopes and trails and the food service. The county parks department will oversee the ski patrol, the ski school and rental equipment operations.
"We're real excited," he added. "We're looking forward to the start of the season. We'll be dedicating some new rail features for our skiers and snowboarders."
Clarence Hopson, deputy director of recreation for the county's parks department, said Mr. Shultz "is determined to get Boyce Park open as soon as possible and keeping us open without any interruptions. We certainly want to be open and underway by Dec. 25."
The Christmas and New Year's holidays are prime time for snowsports enthusiasts, especially those who received holiday gifts of new clothing and/or ski/snowboard equipment.
"I'm looking forward to this season more than I have in years," Mr. Hopson said. "It's very exciting. We've added more skis and snowboards to our rental equipment. And UPMC is donating 50 to 75 helmets for our customers to use.
"Our lifts were inspected by the state Department of Labor and Industry on Nov. 12, and they're all ready to go." Boyce Park's only chairlift, which is showing its age, had numerous extended shutdowns in recent years.
Mr. Hopson said the area no longer will have to buy Snomax, an expensive snowmaking additive, thanks to the TechnoAlpins. "That's a considerable savings right there. We'll use up the Snomax we have and that will be it."
"We want our facilities to be affordable for everyone, especially for families," he added. "That's why there has been no increase in the price of lift tickets, lessons and rental equipment for several years."
Lawrence Walsh writes about recreational snowsports for the Post-Gazette.