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Taking on the snow gods

By Anita Coia

Posted 19 July, 2018

Snowgun Heavenly Valley
snowmaking top of Heavenly Valley
snowmaking whole village

There’s nothing headier than the power of creation, and centuries-worth of myths and legends have repeatedly warned of the folly of seeking to wrest power from the gods and wield it for personal advantage.

At Hotham, the ability to create snow must rate as a semi-mythological power – to create from air and water a magical substance that is the source of so much pleasure. However, it’s a power that is wielded for the good of many, not just one or two.

Why make snow?

Until fairly recently, snowmaking was considered to be something of a poor cousin to ‘the real thing’, required only when Mother Nature decided to take a bit of a break and torture all the eager snow-seekers.

Things have changed a lot over the couple of decades, particularly after the poor 1993 season, which delivered a maximum natural snow depth of 81 cm. Three years later, in 1996, there was a bumper 247 cm maximum snow depth. This kind of rollercoaster variation makes for a nerve-wracking winter for guests, who often book their holidays well in advance, and for resort operators, whose business relies on snowfall.

By the time 2006’s sketchy season arrived (highest natural snow depth of 53 cm), snowmaking was well and truly entrenched, and was already a very sophisticated profession. In fact, 2006 was the first year that recording started for snowmaking areas, and the data shows that snowmaking nearly doubled the natural snow depth in 2006 at Hotham, rescuing the season from disaster. In 2007, Mother Nature was back on deck, delivering a maximum natural snow depth of 140 cm.

Snowmaking is now an established part of operations at Hotham, ensuring more consistent and longer seasons, and in a country that regularly suffers from drought, it’s considered a necessity.

How is snow ‘made’?

The science of snowmaking is an exact one and is based on the ‘wet bulb temperature’, which essentially measures how much water vapor the atmosphere can hold at current weather conditions. The optimum wet blub temperature for snowmaking is -2 degrees Celsius.

Hotham has a coordinated system of 103 TechnoAlpin snow guns, including 3 at Dinner Plain, which use high pressure water and compressed air to mimic Mother Nature. Some are permanent towers, others are mobile guns. Hotham actually has two systems – the mainline, which basically supplies all of the resort except the Big D, which is a small independent system supplied by water tanks on Mt Higginbotham. The Hotham snowmaking team proudly consider the mainline to be the most advanced and most automated snowmaking system in Australia.

All the snow making machines at Hotham are fan guns, which can project ice crystals further. The longer they’re in the air (‘hang time’), the larger, drier and more consistent the crystals will be. The fans also help the crystals to form by cooling them. The result? High production and top quality snow – the finest in Australia.

The automatic guns also have individual weather stations, which allow each gun to respond independently to changes in climatic conditions. They’ll start when the conditions reach a pre-set value, and also will stop if conditions become unfavourable. The system will also adjust snow quality so the guns can be run at maximum production for as long as possible, then the runs are dried off and topped up with powder for perfect first tracks.

Where does the water come from?

The mainline system is supplied by the Loch Dam, a 28 megalitre reservoir that is filled from two sources – a weir, and Class A recycled water from Mt Hotham Alpine Resort Management Board’s waste water treatment plant. The beauty of this arrangement is that the snowmaking returns water back into the catchment it originally came from.

This water feeds snowmaking on Mother Johnson’s Return, Milky Way, Upper and Lower Imagine, Blue Snake, Snake Gully, The Canyon, and The Summit.

Working with the groomers

The snowmakers are on call 24 x 7 for the right conditions, but generally work from 4pm through the night to 9am in two shifts. This means they’re out there with our other favourite night owls, the snow groomers.

“The snow we make consolidates and builds on the ski runs. It lasts longer than natural snow and compacts more readily, which means it can withstand weather better,” says Nathan Gumela, Manager of Snowmaking for Mt Hotham Skiing Company.

“We work closely with the grooming team, and as the night progresses we dry off the snow to finish off a run after the groomers have done their work, giving the runs a really nice surface.”

Quiet achievers

There’s quite a bit of maintenance involved in keeping the snowmaking system operational. Guns get buried in snow, requiring a lot of digging. Hoses and power cables get run over by skiers and boarders.

But the snowmaking team wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s clear they are incredibly proud of the job they do, ensuring our guests have a fun experience with consistent, top quality snow. The snow gods must look down on them with complete approval for the respect the snowmakers have for their craft.

Snowmaking may have somewhat dampened the amateur pub conversations where punters spend long hours trying to predict snow conditions, but it’s for the best. Hats off to our snowmakers, our quiet achievers who work while we sleep, ensuring we wake up to the best possible snow conditions every day.

Photos by Shane Moynagh, Mount Hotham Skiing Company snowmaker, 2018

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The snow we make consolidates and builds on the ski runs. It lasts longer than natural snow and compacts more readily, which means it can withstand weather better.

Nathan Gumela, Manager of Snowmaking for Mt Hotham Skiing Company

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