The snow must go on: Machines pumping ahead of ski season opening weekend

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Key points

  • The ski season opens this weekend but not all resorts will have lifts operating. 
  • Climate change is forcing alpine resorts to produce their own snow. 
  • Mount Buller will have three lifts operating, Falls Creek will have one. 

The snowmaking factories rumble day and night at Mount Buller, pumping a constant stream of machine-made snow into great white icy piles.

It is these factories that will help ensure skiers can hit the slopes this King’s Birthday long weekend, which typically marks the start of the ski season.

Climate change poses an increasing threat to Victoria’s skiing industry, so alpine resorts are responding with a growing armoury of snowmaking technology.

Mount Buller and Mount Stirling Alpine Management chief executive Mark Bennetts watching the stream of machine-made snow. Credit: Joe Armao

Last year, Mount Buller received its deepest recorded snow level for the June long weekend when the depth of natural snow hit 76 centimetres.

But the Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting drier and warmer conditions this winter, with decreased snow depths.

A snowball from machine-made snow at Mount Buller. Credit: Joe Armao

Buller Ski Lifts snowmaking manager Paul Richmond said the four factories at the resort had been pumping since May 1 to provide a consistent base for natural snow and skiing.

“It’s helping us start the season and get through it,” he said.

The factories are built into shipping containers with vats that convert water into crushed ice.

Together, they can generate 520 cubic metres of snow daily – enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool every five days – that is groomed out across the slopes.

The state government provided $2.8 million for two of the factories, which were installed last year. The first of the four factories was brought to Mount Buller in 2017.

Paul Richmond inside the snow making factory. Credit: Joe Armao

Snow guns – another method for producing snow from water – have long been fixtures to back up natural snowfall at Victoria’s alpine resorts.

Mount Buller has about 350 of the guns, but they need sub-zero temperatures and particular humidity levels, whereas snow factories can operate in much warmer weather.

Richmond said factories used a lot of electricity, which he acknowledged was a concern. But he said Buller Ski Lifts was putting in solar panels and procuring more green power.

Mount Buller and Mount Stirling Alpine Resort Management chief executive Mark Bennetts said he hoped that would be a less pressing issue as Victoria increased renewable power generation.

He said ski resorts around the world, even in the Swiss Alps, were making snow to mitigate the effects of climate change.

“This is not new to the alpine sector,” he said. “It’s been dealing annually with climate change for years.”

Bennetts said Mount Buller also used fences that catch snow, so it can be groomed out, and satellite technology to distribute snow more evenly to enhance skiing conditions.

Buller Ski Lifts is scheduled to have three lifts running for the opening weekend.

Machine-made snow at Mount Buller. Credit: Joe Armao

Bureau of Meteorology senior meteorologist Angus Hines said the long weekend would probably be dry and clear, followed by a forecast of about five centimetres of snow on Tuesday from 1300 metres and another five to 10 centimetres on Wednesday down to 1100 metres.

Hines said there could still be a plenty of snow this winter, despite the forecast.

“It only takes one or two big weather events at the right time to set up the season well,” he said.

At Falls Creek, businesses are still recovering from a landslide that heavily restricted road access to the resort over summer.

The landslide that blocked road access to Falls Creek during summer. Credit: Jason South

One lift will operate for sightseeing for the season opening, but the resort is expecting to fire up the snow guns over the weekend.

Falls Creek Chamber of Commerce president Lisa Logan said socialising would be the focus on opening weekend.

“We might have a bit of sightseeing snow, but that’s about it,” she said.

Logan said it was rare for skiing to begin in early June. “Towards the end of June is when we expect to see some decent snowfall.”

Cooroona Alpine Lodge owner Lachlan Beckett said bookings at his Falls Creek business were just below 60 per cent for the winter.

“Everyone in the industry is hanging out for next week when we get some colder temperatures,” he said.

But Beckett said the industry was now contending with another threat: “Whenever they put the interest rates up, we seem to get a flood of cancellations.”

Mount Hotham Chamber of Commerce president Steve Belli said accommodation was about 85 per cent full for opening weekend. However, ski lifts will not open at Mount Hotham this weekend.

Alpine Resorts Victoria chair Ali Wastie said industry experts were developing a plan to ensure the lower lying resorts of Mount Baw Baw and Lake Mountain could adapt to climate change.

She said visitation at the state’s six alpine resorts last year reached the highest level in more than a decade and the industry was worth more than $1 billion to Victoria’s economy.

The Age stayed overnight in Mount Buller courtesy of Buller Ski Lifts.

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