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A blistering late April sun is beating down on the handful of skiers gingerly descending Val d’Isère’s La Face, a ribbon of white amid patches of brown and grey.
As they slide down the hard-packed sections of the notorious piste, they may well be regretting their decision not to take the easier alternative further up the valley. But they would not be posing the question at all were it not for a technology that has swept through resorts in the past 15 years, becoming a new standard for winter tourism: the snow machine.
“Twenty years ago this slope would have been dry by now,” says Frédéric Charlot, director of Val d’Isère Téléphériques, a private company that runs the resort’s snow-making efforts and its lifts.
The pace of growth in artificial snow-making has been startling. Val d’Isère installed its first snow machine in 1986, adding another the year after. Now it has 650, covering 40 per cent of the skiable area. It is the same story across the Alps and in North America: Les Arcs has more than 400 snow machines; Zermatt 900.
Charlot recently added a new weapon to Val d’Isère’s snow-making arsenal with the construction of the Snow Factory, one of the biggest snow-making facilities in Europe. It is carved out of the solid rock beneath the Olympique lift, yards from the nursery slopes. With six pumps, an array of industrial-sized filters and a huge man-made reservoir to feed its production, it can produce 1,000 cubic metres of snow per hour, more than three times the output of a typical plant.
As he walks amid the spotlessly clean equipment, Charlot shows visible pride in the facility, a complex construction project that was completed last year at a cost of €2m, describing how its formidable power will bolster the resort’s confidence in the quality of its snow throughout the five-month season.
But a fundamental uncertainty looms — albeit in the long term — over the effectiveness of artificial snow-making. If the climate continues to warm, will resorts find themselves perilously over-reliant on technology that requires temperatures well below freezing to function properly?
The best temperature for Val d’Isère’s machines is between -7C and -15C. Within this range, the snowmakers can create all the types of snow they need, some to serve as the base layer of ski slopes and finer stuff for top dressing. “We can do it at -2C but the snow is not the same quality,” Charlot says.
The principle of snow-making is simple enough: at low temperatures, pumping air and water at pressure through a nozzle in a lance or fan creates a fine spray that turns into snow before it hits the ground. A network of pipes runs up from the factory to machines that line 65km of slopes, while in an office beside the pumps, a bank of 10 computer screens allows staff to monitor each installation on the network.
Environmentalists have raised concerns over snowmaking’s ecological impact, particularly when some manufacturers used chemical additives designed to raise the temperature at which snow could be produced. To allay such concerns, most resorts now use only water and air.
Confidence in the ability of snow-making technology to tackle the vagaries of climate has never been higher. Beijing — a city hardly famed for its generous snowfall — was named in July as host city for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The Chinese organisers plan to overcome any shortage with wholesale use of snow machines.
Nevertheless, the issue of warming temperatures is becoming harder to ignore. This year is on track to be the hottest since records began, according to the US National Centers for Environmental Information. Robert Steiger, an academic at Innsbruck university who has researched the impact of climate change on ski resorts, says: “In a 2 degree [warming] scenario, many areas at the edge of the Alps, such as in southern Germany and in Salzburg, would not be ‘snow reliable’ even with current snow-making technology.” Under these predictions, places such as Kitzbühel, at 800m, are seen as vulnerable, as well as Germany’s Garmisch (708m) and Schladming (745m) in Austria.
“We’ll still be able to ski in 80 years with today’s technology but a lot of ski areas that are close to metropolitan areas are quite likely to vanish — and these are important for the wider tourist economy because many people learn to ski in these areas,” says Steiger.
At 1,850m, one of Europe’s highest resorts, Val d’Isère could be a potential winner, as skiers move uphill in search of snow. But it remains prey in other ways to the shortening season: in mid-December, it hosts the opening men’s and women’s races in the annual world cup. Last year, temperatures were so high in the run-up to the race that the brand new snow factory could only stand idle — and, without enough snow, organisers were forced to move the men’s contest to Sweden. Charlot and his team will be hoping that this year — the race’s 60th anniversary — they will be able to show off what their factory can really do.
Photographs: Dreamstime; Val d’Isère Tourisme
James Pickford was a guest of VIP Chalets (vip-chalets.com), which offers a week at its Club Bellevarde from £789 half-board, including flights from London and transfers. For more on the resort, visit valdisere.com