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Zermatt’s snowmakers: “We’re ready to go!”

10.10.2012

Zermatt is all about snow sports, 365 days a year. As of the autumn and throughout the winter, up to three quarters of the ski runs and pistes can be provided with snow or lie ahead of glacier’s ground. It is a field in which Zermatt has established a pioneering body of knowledge. Raoul Biner is one of Zermatt’s two “snowmakers”. He is a professional and veteran expert on all matters relating to snow and Zermatt. New, in the autumn, his work is crucial to the 2012/2013 winter season.

Zermatt’s skiing areas expand in the autumn and shrink in late spring. The state of play in early October every year is no different in 2012: the skiing area on the Theodul Glacier and around the Matterhorn glacier paradise covers more than 21 km. More and more kilometres are to be added through to mid-December until a total of 360 km of ski runs are available. “At what point we’re able to open all the pistes depends on the weather and, above all, the snowfall,” says Raoul Biner (47). “But we’re ready to go!” Raoul Biner joined the company Zermatt Bergbahnen AG 22 years ago and has been working with snowmaking installations since 1996; he became a snow systems manager, also called “snowmaker” in 1999. “That title didn’t even exist before,” laughs the expert with the weathered face.

Setting up snow lances

In early October the teams under Raoul Biner and Daniel Imboden get to work on the southern and northern areas. They fetch the 900 snow lances and low-pressure machines from the depots and post them throughout the Zermatt skiing region. A key partner at this stage is Air Zermatt and its helicopters.

Once all the snow-making equipment is ready, the water begins to flow through the pipes and hoses. Snowmaker Raoul Biner consults the data from his 25 weather stations. “Once the wet-bulb temperature readings are right, we can get going,” he says. “The wet-bulb temperature consists of the air humidity and the air temperature.” These values are used to calculate the right time for starting up the snow guns. “Once the readings are right, we work flat out, in 24-hour shifts,” says Raoul Biner. At that point all 26 members of both teams are on the go.

The right mix of cold and dry weather
Conditions permitting, “we can use the snow-making facilities down the sides of the slopes to create a good foundation,” explains the expert. A properly prepared foundation layer of snow helps protect the ground and bears up to the pressure loading of thousands of snow sports enthusiasts. Zermatt is situated in an area with low precipitation, so it is important to ensure that the ground layer of snow is sturdy and long-lasting. As soon as nature decides it’s time to start snowing, the snowcats are deployed to level off the new snow that has fallen on the pistes prepared with artificial snow. And that can easily be in November; after all, Zermatt’s skiing region is the highest in Europe.

How is artificial snow actually made?

Artificial or man-made snow consists of the finest water droplets. They are sprayed into the air using snowmaking lances and snow guns. As they are falling to the ground (in approx. 10 seconds), they freeze. As man-made snow freezes from the outside in, the grains are round and only 0.1 to 0.8 mm in size, compared with snowflakes, which fall from the sky out of a cloud. Snowflakes grow from the inside out and have a ramified, crystal-like structure. They are much larger than the grains of artificial snow.
Sharing knowledge worldwide
With its proven expertise in the field, Zermatt Bergbahnen AG is regularly contacted by manufacturers of snow-making equipment: “We set up their prototypes across our region, test them, then draw up reports that provide detailed information on the pros and cons of each piece of equipment,” explains Raoul Biner. Indeed, not only is the Zermatt expert’s knowledge legendary. Also the featuring of the new products against the backdrop of the Matterhorn looks stunning in the advertising brochures. Biner is however very critical: “There is no such thing as a perfect snow-making machine. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be competition between manufacturers.”

Every winter Raoul Biner welcomes company representatives from Switzerland, its neighbouring countries and as far afield as the US. Then there are guided tours and presentations of the latest innovations. “I like new things,” he laughs and goes on to speak about his field trips to Canada and the US to visit various manufacturing plants.

Snow lances are used to put down a covering of snow on the upper reaches of the Theodul Glacier close to the Matterhorn.

Raoul Biner, Zermatt’s snowmaker, holding up a defective section of pipe with cracks caused by low temperatures.

A helicopter is used to transport a snow gun to its location.

Some 800 lances are used to produce snow for Zermatt’s snow-sports region.


Facts & Figures

Zermatt skiing region, total200 km
Zermatt and Italy skiing region (Cervinia/Valtournenche), total360 km
Ski runs and pistes with artificial snow or on glacier ground in Zermatt75 %
  
Lances and low-pressure machines900
Water usage in the Zermatt region (2011/2012 season)745'000 m3
Volume of artificial snow produced (2011/2012 season)1,5 Mio. m3
Number of emplyees at Zermatt Bergbahnen AG280
  
Artificial snow using lances (high-pressure): 
Water pressure15 - 60 bar
Water flow4,5 - 25 m3/h
Initial temperature (wet-bulb temperature)minus 4 °C
  
Artificial snow using snow guns (low pressure): 
Water pressure10 - 40 bar
Water flowup to 33 m3/h
Initial temperature (wet-bulb temperature)minus 3 °C
  
Maximum possible temperature for artificial snowfrom plus 3 °C
  
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