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The grooming of a ski domain

Snow management

A snowflake is one of God's most fragile creations, but look what they can do when they stick together!  ~ Anonymous

“Halo around the sun or moon, rain or snow soon.” Snow specialists pay scant attention to old sayings and popular beliefs because as far as they're concerned, chance is not an option! Whether there's a light snowfall or a blizzard, a small army of professionals is always on hand to come up with new solutions.
Snow, a matter for specialists
There are many theories about the vagaries of today’s weather patterns. The catastrophic winters of the 1980s left a number of ski resorts worried and even pessimistic about their future. In addition, extended ski domains have led to the need for more efficient organisation and strategic snow management. Flaine pioneered the process, opening the first 'snow factory' in 1986, which marked a turning point in the way we view snow. Nowadays, snow professionals no longer have the choice. The increasing rarity of the “white gold” means that they have to rely on the expertise of professionals to ensure that ski resorts remain viable and that the region’s economic remains healthy.
Snow workers, snow patrols, groomers and snow makers all, at their own level, share the same goal, namely, to manage the snow that is such a rare, fragile and unstable commodity today. The aim is to develop an intelligent and coherent strategy to delay snow erosion, produce more if necessary, ensure there is enough to cover high-traffic skiing areas, predict the risk of avalanches, and generally observe the snow conditions so as to react in time. A mammoth programme!
Doing the groundwork!
Everyone knows that it's easier to paint a wall that has been well prepared beforehand. The same goes for snow. A well-prepared slope will get a faster covering of the white stuff! In fact the work begins in summer, long before the season starts. When skiing is probably one of the last things on your mind, machines are out working the slopes, removing troublesome stones, flattening bumpy surfaces, and digging the underground canalisations for the snow-making network. The damaged earth is then grassed over to stabilise it, and to allow the snow to settle more easily when it falls and, above all, to stay around longer. Well-prepared soil will also make it easier for the groomers to work efficiently and will delay a slope's closure. Just a few centimetres of snow is enough to keep a slope open on grass, which is obviously not the case in a minefield that tears three centimetres off the edge of your skis at each turn!
Grooming: the icing on the cake
In the 1970s, snow patrols still groomed the snow on skis or with rollers, broke the moguls with pickaxes, and covered the ice patches with snow, a pretty painstaking task. Today, powerful snow-groomer vehicles with hydraulic blades compress the snow covering and substantially add to its lifespan. The snow's worst enemies are the sun and the wind. After snow has fallen, exposure to the air, wind and skiers can damage it substantially. Its albedo (power of reflection of light) decreases, and it absorbs rather than reflects solar energy, making the snow melt faster. Only grooming and rotary tillers can stem the damage and bring a bit of life back to the ageing covering. This difficult and relatively unknown job demands expert knowledge about the way snow changes, as well as great precision. The fine grain of winter, for example, needs to be handled differently from the round grain that falls in spring.
Snow making
It's difficult for a ski resort to survive without artificial snow-making tools nowadays, and it's crucial to invest enough in the process. Even high altitude resorts are now finding it necessary to produce manmade snow. Of course, this doesn't mean producing snow on all the slopes, which would be ridiculous. The aim is to produce enough snow for the main connections, and to ensure that it's possible to ski at Christmas. Snow making is reserved for strategic, high traffic areas. Managing the snow also implies managing the available water resources by creating reservoirs built close to the slopes.
Snow management also means risk management
The Alps are renowned for their high risk of avalanches. An avalanche intervention plan is therefore registered with the local préfecture, whereby the artificial snow makers make their way to the high risk areas and trigger small avalanches on potentially unstable slopes using explosives at the top of the corridors. For safety reasons, these are generally triggered remotely, at the same time ensuring they are more effective. In addition, teams regularly check the covering to observe any changes and to assess vulnerability. Once a week, tool drilling is carried out at various points on the massif reputed to be dangerous. Nothing is left to chance: anticipation, investment and maintenance are the keys to snow management, ensuring first class snow conditions for thousands of skiers.
Snow makers: the MacGyvers of snow
The masters of snow have a MacGyver profile. A combination of plumber, IT expert, road worker, meteorologist and snow scientist, they really need to be a Jack-of-all-trades! The Lycée St Michel de Maurienne now offers a special training course for snow professionals. Their job is to manage the artificial snow network and to ensure that the equipment is operational 24h/24 because without continual surveillance, they would find themselves with huge sheets of ice underfoot. They are responsible for the snow’s quality and for the skiers’ satisfaction and that’s not an easy task! How much does it all cost? The total price of artificial snow per m3 is between 1 and 2 euros, including grooming, fuel, investment, electricity, etc…in other words, an overall cost of 600,000 euros a season for a resort like Alpe d’Huez. Snow guns are devices that launch water droplets into the air at high pressure (between 20 and 80 bars). The power of the water spray is such that it doesn’t freeze straightaway. The compressed air atomizes the water and the small particles spread out and cool as they shoot upwards. When they come into contact with the cold air, the particles solidify and form a flake. The terms “gun” and “artificial snow” are rarely used by snow professionals as they sound aggressive and not really correct as the snow is, in fact, real snow.
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Photos: N.Cuche E. Beallet
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