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Mountain Made Snowmaking

The biggest news this year at Hotham is the completion of the $4.4 million investment in snowmaking coverage, which will ensure the resort is more snow sure than ever before from June through to the end of September.

By MICHAEL BELFRAGE & ANTHONY O’SHEA
4 The Mountain

Snowmaking has evolved. As we’ve seen early this season, mountain made snow quality can be fresh and dry, and with over 100 snow guns across the mountain we can open beginner, intermediate and advanced terrain with limited natural snow until mother nature comes to the party. Here’s how our snowmakers get to work…

Mountain Made

The new snowmaking infrastructure installed at Hotham ahead of this winter is state-of-the-art, but snowmaking technology didn’t come down in the last snow shower. The first snow cannon was invented and patented in the US back in the early 1950s. In 1952, Grossinger’s Resort in the Catskills in upstate New York (the heart of the Borscht Belt) became the first mountain in the world to make its own snow. Since that time, and especially since the 1970s and 1980s, alpine resorts around the world at all latitudes and all altitudes have embraced snowmaking technology to supplement natural snowfall and provide a better season-long skiing and snowboarding experience.

There’s a lot that goes into making an effective snowmaking plan and ensuring any resort builds a reliable, efficient, economical and productive snowmaking system. The many factors that need to be considered include the resort typography and layout, available water and storage area, prevailing winds, high traffic areas, and the most important terrain to have open on the mountain and when. Environmental issues, including loss of native vegetation and rehabilitation of any areas disturbed, also need to be taken into account.

Early season starlight snowmaking on The Mt Hotham Summit
Early season starlight snowmaking on The Mt Hotham Summit

Hotham was a relatively late adopter of snowmaking infrastructure compared to the other Australian resorts. This gave us the advantage of being able to capitalise on improvements in technology and operational learnings and innovations that other resorts may not have had available to them at the time they installed their snowmaking.

Automation has allowed us to take advantage of changes in conditions in real-time and capitalise on every window of opportunity to make snow, short or long.

In earlier generations of snowmaking technology, snowmaking quality depended in large part upon the skill of the equipment operator. By the time Hotham developed a snowmaking master plan in 1998 automation (in the form of more condition-sensitive and remote, computer-controlled snow guns and infrastructure) was allowing snowmakers to operate with much greater precision. Automation became the focus of the Hotham snowmaking plan, and has been our reference point in building a system over nearly 20 years that allows us to take advantage of changes in conditions in real-time and capitalize on every window of opportunity to make snow, short or long.

The latest stage of the Hotham snowmaking master plan was commenced over summer 2015/16, expanding the existing snowmaking areas to include Lower Imagine, Lower Canyon and The Summit. This will ensure more trails on Heavenly Valley, the great intermediate terrain serviced by the Roadrunner lift, and the Beginner terrain in The Summit area will all be serviced by snowmaking throughout the entire season.

Snowmaking at night on Mt Hotham
Snowmaking at night on Mt Hotham
Sunrise snowmaking at Mt Hotham
Sunrise snowmaking at Mt Hotham

Those ‘Lamborghini Yellow’ Snow Guns.

In the early stages of the snowmaking master plan, Hotham decided to align with TechnoAlpin, an Italian company that was relatively small in 1998 but has since grown to be one of the largest suppliers of snowmaking equipment worldwide. TechnoAlpin has always been ahead of their competitors in Research and Development when it comes to making snow in marginal conditions, and Hotham became one of the R&D sites for TechnoAlpin and one of the first southern hemisphere resorts to install their equipment.

Even in 1998, TechnoAlpin equipment included automation, weather stations on each fan gun appliance, and heated fan blades for dealing with icing conditions. And as an example of their learnings from their long experience in the field at Hotham and elsewhere, mounting fan guns on towers has proved to be 20 to 30% more productive in any window of snowmaking opportunity.

Snowguns, groomed runs and sunrise skiing at Mt Hotham Ski Resort
Snowguns, groomed runs and sunrise skiing at Mt Hotham Ski Resort

So when can we make snow?

The critical working tool of a snowmaker after all the water storage, water lines and pumping at high pressure, electrical reticulation and gun infrastructure has been installed is Wet Bulb (WB) temperature. This is the combination of ambient air temperature and relative humidity.

“Wet Bulb temperature effectively tells us how much room is left in the air to add more moisture,” says Len Dobell, General Manager of Operations at Hotham. “It’s generally accepted that snowmaking can start when the wet bulb temperature is -2 degrees. But in low humidity, we might be able to make snow at up to +3 degrees.”

“The ideal Wet Bulb temperature for optimal snowmaking conditions is -3 degrees ambient air temperature and 50% humidity. That’s a WB temperature of -6.4 degrees.”

Whenever snowmaking conditions prevail, the team of snowmakers at Hotham starts the system running and the fan guns start producing snow. The team then patrol the equipment to monitor where the manmade snow is falling, the quality of the manmade snow and any changes to weather parameters.

The manmade snow is usually allowed to sit for 24 hours in a pile – sometimes known as a “whale” – before it is groomed into the places where it is required over the mountain. Manmade snow has proven to be resilient to skier and snowboarder traffic and in less than optimal warm or wet weather conditions.

Guns blazing on Sun Run at dusk at Mt Hotham Alpine Ski Resort
Guns blazing on Sun Run at dusk at Mt Hotham Alpine Ski Resort

So next time you are out on the mountain enjoying perfectly groomed lines of corduroy or consistent snow cover on some of your favourite runs, now you have a bit of an insight into how it all came about and the amount of work the snowmaking crew undertake most nights or whenever the “Wet Bulb” temperature allows them to make that white gold we all live for.

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