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In praise of the snow cannon - Jane Peel, The Dolomites
Sunday December 13, 2015 - Email this article to a friend

Many ski areas in the Alps have seen precious little natural snow, but are open with skiing entirely on artificial snow. The mountain landscape is green & brown with strips of white. PlanetSKI reports from the Dolomites.

When Erich Kastlunger bought a snow-making machine from America for US$ 80,000, some of his fellow ski-lift owners laughed.

It was 1980 and Erich installed the snow cannon in San Vigilio in the Kronplatz area of the Dolomites. 

The story goes that colleagues down the road in Alta Badia thought he was mad.  One said that he would rather close his lift and give up the job than resort to making artificial snow.

It's not clear what happened to the sceptic, but it is true to say that Erich Kastlunger has since been hailed as a pioneer whose foresight helped save the ski industry in the Dolomites.

Thirty-five years after the arrival of that cannon - believed to be the first in Europe - the machines are everywhere in this part of north-eastern Italy.

Snow cannons everywhereSnow cannons everywhere













There are 4,700 of them covering the 1,200 kilometres of runs that make up the Dolomiti Superski area. 

As a result, by mid-December,  more than 500km of pistes were open, despite the lack of any real snow so far this season.

Snowmaking on an industrial scaleSnowmaking on an industrial scale













PlanetSKI has skied here over the past few days and found the pistes to be in tip-top condition - well-groomed, fast and grippy.

It is a pretty spectacular achievement and an economic life-saver, not just for the lift companies that have been able to open on time, but for the individual resorts, hotels and shops.

Diego Clara of Dolomiti Superski says that in some parts of the ski area snow cannons have been operating around the clock since November 21st, thanks to sufficiently low temperatures.

In other areas, they are running every night and early in the morning.

Snowmaking at dawnSnowmaking at dawn













This time last year high temperatures meant they couldn't use the snow cannons,  but fortunately the snow began to fall just before Christmas.

This year there were fears the same might happen.

The snowmaker - Diego ClaraThe snowmaker - Diego Clara













"We were very worried because we had a very warm autumn," he told PlanetSKI.

"In some places we had temperatures of 27 degrees Celsius in mid-November.  But then there was a sudden and big drop and the snow machines could start working on the 21st."

Snow machine in actionSnow machine in action













Good and efficient snow-making depends on a combination of the right air temperature, humidity, and the temperature of the water that's being drawn from the mountain springs or streams to create the artificial snow.

If the humidity is high, the air temperature needs to be lower to compensate.

Diego says that if humidity is 45 per cent, the optimal air temperature for making snow is minus 5 to minus 8 degrees Celsius.

And the warmer the source water is, the colder the air temperature needs to be.

Mounds of artificial snowMounds of artificial snow













For the past 10 years, Dolomiti Superski has been using technology to pre-cool the water by pumping it into cooling towers.

It's a state-of-the-art operation involving two companies,  Technoalpin and DemacLenko, which build the reservoirs, the pipe network, the pumps and the snow machines, and are able to monitor by computer from a remote location  how each element is working.

They use renewable hydro-electric power and no chemicals are involved. 

The technoalpin snow cannonThe technoalpin snow cannon













There are several different types of machine, including mobile ones.

The mobile snow cannonThe mobile snow cannon















The largest of them can produce 60 cubic metres of snow an hour in perfect conditions.

The estimated cost to produce one cubic metre of snow is between 1.5 and 2.5 Euros.

To put that in context, Diego gives an example:

* A slope one kilometre long and 40 metres wide would need 12,000 cubic metres of artificial snow to create a depth of 30 cm.

* At 2 Euros per cubic metre - that would be 24,000 Euros.

So, if all the slopes were the same width (which of course they are not), it would have cost approximately 12 million Euros simply to provide enough snow to cover the 507km of the network currently open for skiing.

The artificial snow is of a different consistency to real snow.

"The crystals are more compact," Diego says. "That is the secret.  So when you bash the snow, the air between the crystals is less than in normal snow, so it stays better for longer.

"It makes sure that a lot of skiers can ski on it, even though the depth is only 30cm.

Artificial snow lasts longerArtificial snow lasts longer













"We wouldn't be able to operate at all without man-made snow".

It would most certainly be disastrous,  with the Christmas holidays approaching fast.

"Our bosses are very nervous now.  It's always the same problem.  If it doesn't snow, the media say there is no snow.  But the slopes are ready and the slopes are good," he told PlanetSKI.

Great skiing on artificial snowGreat skiing on artificial snow













We can confirm that this really is not PR spin. 

Yes, it would be nice to get some of the real stuff falling from the sky, turning the landscape white and opening up the off-piste.   

But the slopes are, indeed, ready and they are very, very good.


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Departures from all major UK airports available (supplement start from £25).

See here for furhter details.

See here for the main PlanetSKI news page with all the latest stories from the world of snowsports.

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