As the ski-season gets underway, the burning issues combine a passion for the mountains, economics interests and the environment.
The strongest critics liken the pistes to the motorways of the mountains, but more and more ski resorts like Tignes in France are taking steps to reduce the negative impact on the environment.
Sometimes these eco-measures are simpler than you might imagine, like snow-traps.
Arnaud Trinquier the mountain manager at Tignes explained: “When you put this system in place, the flow of air will be slowed by the barrier, and the snow will stay behind it. So with this, you can put snow wherever you want to — that is, on the ski runs.
“With this new method, we’re able to accumulate snow 30 times the height of the barrier, so a one-and-a-half metre barrier accumulates 45 metres of snow behind it.”
But keeping the pistes smooth and accessible for skiers of all abilities has its own impact on the environment.
Giant snowcats sweep the ski-zones day and night, drinking up to 30 litres of diesel an hour.
The low temperatures conspire against the use of bio-fuels or electric motors.
So the focus is on cutting consumption.
“To reduce the impact on the environment you have to drive economically, just like in your car,” said one snowcat driver. “That means watching the revs, taking it easy, and avoiding having too much weight on board. That means regular sweeping.”
Simple measures like cutting the engine while refuelling can save around 15,000 litres of fuel per year.
And advances in snow-cannon design have lowered energy consumption by 30 percent in six years.
But they are still a controversial part of the snow-scape.
Vincent Neirinck of the Mountain Wilderness Association said: “When the technology first came out, people said ‘Great, it’s a chance to stop the rush to higher stations’ which were starting to fit-out glaciers in the search for snow which had been receding because of global warming. Immediately there was a new marketing argument. They had to have more and more snow-cannons, putting them everywhere.”
At Tignes, there are more than 350 snow-cannons with the highest at 2800 metres. They use 10,000 cubic metres of water to produce 20,000 cubic metres of snow.
Arnaud Trinquier said: “All the water we take comes from the lake, feeding the system and the network. It’ll be sprayed on the slopes by the snow-cannons, and then in Spring that snow will melt back to water, and will run back to the same lake that we pumped it from. So for us, it has a relatively neutral impact.”
Ski-stations rely on the environment and less waste means economic savings.
To achieve that they are using advanced technologies alongside more ancient practices and good old-fashioned common sense.
But Vincent Neirinck warned: “The real problem isn’t whether or not to be ecological, what’s underway right now is going quite well, the environment is being taken into account. The problem is, what’s happening at the moment is continuing to grow and grow to the detriment of the environment and the mountain.”
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