Journalism

Snow Factory Defies Mother Nature, Keeps Mt. Baw Baw Open

A new addition to Mt. Baw Baw Alpine Resort allows for an extended winter season. The new Snow Factory brings “guaranteed snow” in time periods that are often outside of its ski seasons. This comes amidst climate change concerns of a shortening Winter.

Oct. 7, 2018

By Jack Morgan

It’s a muggy day at Mount Baw Baw. The ice has melted off the Tingaringy Gum trees revealing their year-round eucalypt leaves. The temperatures are too warm for natural snow. But on Summit, there’s 40cm of artificial and natural snow groomed out over the ski run. 78 year old skier John Irene was king of the hill once, but after skiing for 60 years he says that everything changes.

Irene has adopted small skis and a new technique because of his deteriorating balance. The technique is called the gliding wedge, and is also suited for these spring skiing conditions. “In the old days you went head over heels when you hit a snow guns pile because they kept running when they shouldn’t,” he says. Now that technology has progressed he doesn’t notice a difference. “They just make little piles of ice, and where they put it you don’t know.”

Head snowmaker Darren Hack has worked at Baw Baw for 18 years, and has helped introduce a new technology capable of producing man-made snow up to 15°C. The snow factory uses Ammonia gas, a refrigeration technique commonplace throughout the early 20th Century. Although it is poisonous in high concentrations, the safeguards used at Baw Baw have prevented any leak so far. Environmental organisations such as GreenPeace support the use of Ammonia refrigeration, as it releases negligible emissions compared to its alternatives.

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Darren Hack outiside the snow factory at Mt. Baw Baw Alpine Resort.

“In the last week of April, we made snow all day and all night right up to the opening weekend, and we had a ski run open for the opening which never happens in Victoria,” says Hack. Because of the ability to operate up to 15°C, Hack says Baw Baw can run Summer snow play activities. This is what’s ground-breaking for resorts, where the regular snow guns can only operate below -2°C.

“All the resorts, even in America and Europe that have good snowfalls, they’re all purchasing them because they’re future-proofing for global warming,” says Hack. They’re slightly more expensive than their equivalent in snow guns, but it’s the obvious choice for Baw Baw considering the mountains average snow depth is towards the lower end compared to larger resorts.

Snow piles produced by the snow factory before season opening.

A fan gun (alternatively snow gun) used at Mt. Baw Baw.

“The snow factory snow comes out like shaved ice, and it’s still quite good for the ski runs. It works in well. The fan gun snow comes out as a more natural snow crystal and it’s a lot finer,” says Hack. The grooming team spread out the piles with groomers so that the artificial snow covers up to half of the hill. There’s no weather limitations when combined with the fan guns, because they will run when it’s colder than -2°C. “Manmade snow will probably last 80 to 90 percent longer than natural snow. All manmade snow has good riding on it, it’s quite good to ski and board on, and probably a slight bit quicker than natural snow depending on temperatures.”

Baw Baw Marketing Director Amon Bradshaw says he has seen a financial growth beyond the average this year. He says the snow factory has had an impact on profits. “Not only does it keep us going through the season, it guarantees our start and finish,” says Bradshaw. “In the past there’s always been a little bit of doubt about Baw Baw because you never know what conditions you’re going to get.”

“This year the marketing approach was ‘guaranteed snow’, basically that was our motto. Some people were a little bit worried because the snow factory hadn’t been seen and we were pushing that before we had the machine on the mountain, however it turned out to be perfect,” says Bradshaw. The snow factory allows peace of mind when marketing events like the rail jam, as well as selling ski and snowboard lessons.

The snow factory also helps other departments, such as the Alpine Hotel and Village Central Restaurant. Customers “may just come to have a ski and they may pack their own lunch but after an hour or two they might decide to spend money. It’s all linked in together,” says Bradshaw. “The snow factory gets people up here.”

Despite having the snow factory, September remains to be a hard sell not only for Baw Baw but for every other ski resort in Australia. “Once September hits, people start talking about the grand final and people start talking about the first wave of heat. Then people just start thinking about beach,” he says. Competing against the larger resorts has always been an issue for Baw Baw, where the snow factory “allows us to sell our product which is a safe, sheltered resort for beginners and intermediates.” But won’t turn Baw Baw into a Buller or Hotham.

Baw Baw is the second ski resort to purchase a snow factory in Australia, behind Mt. Buller which purchased one in 2017. Buller invested $1.6 million in its snow factory. For Baw Baw, the investment adds to the growing concerns of profit. In 2017, Mt. Baw Baw Resort Management Board received $7 million from the Victorian Government to continue its operations. Currently, it costs more to operate Mt Baw Baw than the revenue it is capable of generating. All Victorian resorts are facing an increasingly uncertain future due to climate change. At 1,564m elevation, Mt Baw Baw is one of the lower alpine resorts in Victoria. So it desperately needs the snow factory to continue its regular length season operation.

The top of hut run, looking out over the Latrobe Valley.

Environmentalist Rowen Privett has worked with Mt. Hotham resort management board to improve sustainability issues. “On average the winter seasons for a lot of countries, Australia included, are getting shorter and shorter,” says Privett. “I’ve been involved in environmental work at Hotham, and we’ve been noticing ourselves when recording temperatures that the temperatures have not been as cold.”

Privett is afraid there will be a point where people are only skiing on artificial snow. “The way things are going, I think it’s going to be a fighting battle isn’t it? I mean it’s more of a Band-Aid solution,” he says in regards to the snow factory. “We’re getting away short term with minimal snow making, but I think as time goes on and if the charts are correct, it might be the only option. I think in 20-30 years to come we might have to rely on nothing but snowmaking.”

“Maybe some grass skis? I used to be a grass ski instructor years ago, I could go back to that.”

“There’s some pretty huge forces like Mother Nature and you can’t raise the mountains, with Mother Nature declining and being unreliable,” says Privett.

The cost of lift passes could also be raised dramatically, as relying on only man-made snow would be expensive for ski resorts. “Hotham Resort Management Board are playing a large role in the pricing of the tickets because a lot of money for the services came from the ticket prices. That included the snowmaking and the ski patrol and so forth,” says Privett.

Privett says the resorts are getting better when it comes to sustainability. With technological advancements in refrigeration, greenhouse gas emissions are low “It’s a slow turning wheel.” Although, Privett admits he’s worried about the chemicals that could run off into the streams and be harmful to ecosystems.

Sam French, lift operator and snowboarder.

Lift Operator Sam French has been snowboarding for one season. When snowboarding, he thinks there’s a big difference between natural and artificial snow. “Fake snow is really sticky compared to all the real snow. You really notice it when you go from fake snow to a patch of the real stuff, you kind of just shoot off.”

But when comparing between the artificial snow from snow guns and the snow factory, French can’t tell much of a difference. “It’s mainly the colour that you notice. They’re both kind of just as slow as each other,” he says. French says that people who regularly come to the snow would have experienced this, it’s unavoidable.

Fake snow seems to be an inevitable part of skiing in 2018. The snow factory is another technological advancement that’s at the beginning of its introduction in Australia, but is it only a “Band-Aid solution” to a greater problem?