Snowmaking comes in from the cold

Beat Allenbach making sure the winter is white

Snow means life and livelihood to Beat Allenbach from Adelboden in the Bernese Alps. His winter begins when summer ends and there’s much to do.

This content was published on December 29, 2009 minutes

Allenbach had his work cut out, preparing for the opening of the ski season, which is now in full swing.

Special vehicles transport snow cannon and snow lances onto the green alpine meadows where they are assembled.

“It’s hard, physical work,” says Allenbach.

“If we don’t have any snow, we don’t have any guests. People want to ski in December, not hike. There is no way to survive in winter tourism any more without artificial snow.”

He says that winter is increasingly being brought forward and some would even like the season to start in October. The reverse side of the coin is that in March, when there are often superb skiing conditions, people no longer want to ski.

“Things have changed. The pressure was not like this in the past. The ski lifts only went into operation when there was snow. And if there wasn’t any snow in November, after the lifts had had their annual service, we waited at home until there was snow,” he said.

Competition in winter tourism has become fierce across Europe. Added to that, cheap deals for seaside holidays in the Caribbean “entice customers out of winter”.

When Allenbach, a trained mechanic, began with the ski lift company in 1989, the village of Adelboden at 1,350 metres only used artificial snow for critical stretches, for example at the bottom of the lift or for the World Cup Chuenisbärgli piste.

Laying down manmade snow only began in the early 1990s, the 43-year-old snow expert recalls. “We used a 50-metre long fire brigade hose and a water pump driven by petrol and if it was a little bit white in the morning, we were proud.”

Technology has improved to the extent that artificial snow covers large areas, using mobile snow cannons and fixed snow lances.

In the Silleren ski area, for which Allenbach is responsible, there’s a snow lance every 50 metres. In total there are 100.

“Hiss a bit”

“They don’t make very much noise - they only hiss a little bit.”

That’s in contrast to the extremely noisy propeller snow cannons that are difficult to deploy close to hotels and holiday chalets in the resort.

Making snow requires a sophisticated infrastructure including computer-programmed equipment and a huge demand for electricity and water.

Water is pumped from the valley up the mountain and it comes from sources, reservoirs and the local water company.

About 60 per cent of the main slopes are prepared with manmade snow, as it says in promotional flyers. Once criticised as environmentally unfriendly, Allenbach describes it nowadays as nearly “natural” and a “must” for the winter, to guarantee reliable snow conditions.

The snowmaker admits that it’s the older generation who still raise their eyebrows whereas the young are indifferent to the issue.

“Beautiful powder”

“They have grown up with artificial snow. A real fanatic will even enjoy a piste covered in artificial snow… but a beautiful slope with [natural] powder is obviously something else.”

Allenbach says he’s found no damage to nature and the environment. “Spring comes about two weeks later because the artificial snow is wetter and heavier, and therefore melts more slowly.”

But since there are no chemicals in it, the ground does not suffer… on the contrary.

Before the widespread use of cannon and lances, there was erosion and damage to the ground.

And reliable snow conditions were urgently needed. “The number of people on the slopes has increased tremendously and the material that goes into carving skis and snowboards has become more aggressive. The edges cut everything down and damage the slopes a lot more than they once did.”

And the future?

Allenbach clearly has thoughts about what the future will bring, when temperatures are expected to rise and natural snow in Adelboden becomes rarer.

But he says: “In earlier times there were also winters when there wasn’t much snow, for example in 1987/1988 and 2007, which was really hard. But in 1999 we had loads of snow and we had great winters over the past two years.”

Forecasting what future winters will bring is difficult, despite global warming. “That calms me down.” However, Allenbach feels that interfering with nature does have its limits.

“I read that the Chinese shot up a rocket and the end result was that half of Beijing was covered in snow, which led to chaos on the streets. That’s going too far.”

He also wonders whether producing artificial snow can go on indefinitely. “What’s going to happen when a third of the snow melts during the day due to rising air and ground temperatures? Is it really worth it to produce artificial snow?

Gaby Ochsenbein in Adelboden, (Translated from German by Robert Brookes)

Snowmaking economics

The Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne published the results in 2008 of a study on the economic impact of snowmaking.

"Adapting ski area operations to a warmer climate in the Swiss Alps through snowmaking investments and efficiency improvements" found that around 1,400 kilometres - 19 per cent - of total slope area in Switzerland was set up for artificial snow cover in 2005.

Under the poor snow conditions of the 2003-2004 season, 69.5 per cent of Swiss companies operating more than 15 kilometres of ski slopes would have increased their net income with a one kilometre increase in snowmaking facilities.

Total cantonal and federal investment in snowmaking across Switzerland in 2005 was SFr12.5 million. The study found that artificial snow could cover 18-22 per cent of slope area in the three most important ski regions in cantons Valais, Graubünden and Bern.

Ski operators in Fribourg, Vaud, Ticino and St Gallen were the most dependent on cantonal authorities for investment in snowmaking systems. Bernese resorts were the least dependent on cantonal authorities.

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