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Black Mountain, Sugarbush prodigy receiving recognition as snowmaker

Doug Fichera applies a fresh layer at his family’s Black Mountain area in New Hampshire, where he runs the snowmaking operation.

cheryl Senter for the boston globe

Doug Fichera applies a fresh layer at his family’s Black Mountain area in New Hampshire, where he runs the snowmaking operation.

Doug Fichera is only 21 years old but is already receiving national recognition as a snowmaking expert.

Fichera considers his craft an art form. He works as an overnight shift supervisor at Sugarbush Resort in Vermont, and is responsible for the entire snowmaking operation at his family’s Black Mountain area in New Hampshire. At the same time, he’s a full-time Champlain College senior pursuing a major in business and a minor in marketing, and is preparing for an internship that will involve the capital improvement study of a multimillion-dollar snowmaking operation.

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And to think that his passion never would have snowballed had Fichera’s parents scolded him for his very first attempt at a snowmaking system — one that nearly blew up the house.

“When he was a little kid, he got tinkering and he’d build his own snow guns,” said his father, John Fichera. “He would grab parts and cannibalize things.

“He borrowed a small air compressor from a neighbor. He brought it up to the yard, hooked it up to the hose and almost blew a toilet off the wall because he didn’t adjust for air pressure.

“It’s a good thing his mother wasn’t home. The whole house sounded like it was boiling, all the air bubbles going through the plumbing.”

Fichera might opt to leave that adventure off his snowmaking résumé. But he’ll have plenty of other accolades, including a recent “Young Gun” recognition by Ski Area Management magazine. The trade publication annually highlights 10 snow sports industry employees under age 30, and when Fichera made the cut earlier this year, he was the youngest of the honorees and one of only two New Englanders.

“I always say life’s too short to do things that you don’t enjoy doing,” Fichera said last week via phone as he was gearing up to make his after-sundown check of the snow guns at Black. “So if you enjoy something, you should pursue it, and that’s what I’m trying to do — be diligent, be passionate, keep at it.”

John Fichera grew up in the 1960s skiing Black Mountain, the oldest continually operating ski area in New Hampshire. By chance, he was driving the family through the White Mountains in the summer of 1995 when he cruised into the parking lot and learned the property had gone into bankruptcy.

John, an attorney, immediately got in touch with his brother, Andy, and they decided to buy the ski area. John moved his wife and three kids from Marshfield to Jackson, N.H., and everyone (toddlers included) pitched in to make a go of the venture.

By age 8, Doug Fichera had zeroed in on snowmaking as the most intriguing part of the business.

“I remember when I was a little kid, being lucky enough to have my father invite me down to do things that were dangerous at the time, that the rest of my family wasn’t on board with,” Fichera said. “The first time I ever made snow was with him, and I remember it being just kind of a blur and confusing.”

But the blur crystallized, just as the flakes do when you get the right mix of water and pressurized cold air.

“You’re making your own weather,” Fichera said. “That was the biggest thing for me then and it still is today. It’s the hardest job in the ski industry, whether people want to admit it or not, and oftentimes snowmaking gets the least credit. It’s a kind of behind-the-scenes process, and it’s what makes the ski industry go around, especially here in the East.”

When he enrolled at Champlain in Burlington, Vt., Fichera applied for a job at nearby Sugarbush. When he told snow surfaces manager Mike Wing that he was 18 years old and had 10 years of experience, Wing figured Fichera was exaggerating.

“To have somebody at that age have a whole sense of not just the snowmaking, but the lifts and the running of a resort, that’s huge,” Wing said. “For him it’s not just putting two pieces of pipe together and putting air and water through it. Fichera’s been around it long enough that he knows what it takes to valve the entire mountain.”

Fichera since has been promoted to supervisor, and has been retained in the offseason to help with system maintenance.

“I enjoy nights, it’s awful rough, but I work nights at Sugarbush as a matter of necessity because of school,” said Fichera, adding that during vacations it’s back to Black. “Sleep is kind of a second priority. I always have this saying that the ski industry never sleeps. Ever since I was a little kid, it’s always been an all-nighter type of thing.”

Fichera said he is worried about landing a full-time job in the industry after graduation. But being immersed in the family business gives him a unique perspective other Young Guns don’t have.

“I grew up watching my family pay the bills,” Fichera said. “If we had a bad season, a low snow year, and a bad revenue year, we would feel it. That’s drastically different from someone who is a professional in the industry but has never known what it feels like to pay the bills.

“I see it all the time working with people at both Black and Sugarbush; they just don’t understand how expensive it is, how much it matters if a gun is pointed in the woods half the night or if the power goes out and you freeze a bunch of equipment.”

Yet he also recognizes the ephemeral nature of snowmaking.

“It’s something that you spend so much money on, and it’s gone in the spring,” Fichera said. “It’s not an investment that holds value year after year. It just melts.”

John Fichera said it doesn’t matter to him whether Doug ends up running the family business or working at another resort, as long as his son is chasing his dream.

“At a ski area, you’re outside, you make people smile, you make them happy,” said John. “It’s better than driving a desk.”

For now, Fichera is content to work toward his dream night by night, one flake at a time.

“Some nights, we have winds blowing at 40 miles per hour and you can’t see 10 feet in front of you,” Fichera said. “Other nights, like last week, it’s a full moon, there’s no wind, there’s clear sky and it’s just amazing and it’s fun. The snow is all flying exactly where you want it to go, and it’s awesome.”

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