Roger Cox: Snowfactories could transform the fortunes of Scottish ski resorts

"Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow..." A Snowfactory in action
"Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow..." A Snowfactory in action
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At the start of September I received an email from Andy Meldrum, head honcho at Glencoe Mountain ski resort, in which he said he was about to attempt something “very ambitious”. Meldrum’s achievements to date include saving Scotland’s oldest ski hill from closure with a dramatic 11th hour rescue package and pioneering freeride ski and snowboard contests in Scotland with the consistently spectacular Coe Cup, so when he says he has a new idea you’re as well to drop everything and pay attention.

His latest project turned out to be a crowdfunding campaign which, if successful, would allow Glencoe to purchase a TechnoAlpin Snowfactory. “It will give us a guaranteed opening and closing date for the season,” he said, “and allow us to guarantee at least some skiing throughout the whole season.”

I’d never heard of a Snowfactory before, and initially I was sceptical. I’d seen artificial snowmaking work well in a controlled environment – Jamie Smith at Snow Factor in Glasgow, for example, has it down to a fine art – but I’d never been all that impressed by snow canons in an outdoor setting. The still, sub-zero conditions in which they work best are easy enough to come by in the Alps, but not in Scotland; try using them in temperatures above or even marginally below freezing and all you’re really doing is watering the grass.

Snowfactories, however, seem to be immune to this problem, because rather than spraying water into the air so it can freeze and fall as snow, they create snow inside giant metal boxes and then blast it out onto the hillside ready-made. This means they can operate in temperatures well above freezing. At Mt Buller in Australia, they reckon it’s economical to use their Snowfactory in anything up to 15 degrees C.

Andy sent me a link to a film of a Snowfactory in action in the micro-resort of Moninec in the Czech Republic, so I could see what all the fuss was about. The film only lasted five minutes but by the three-minute mark I was convinced. All through the balmy days of mid-October – sun shining, trees still green – cheery Czech snowmakers were churning out enormous heaps of snow. By 20 October they had a small beginner slope up and running, and by 17 November they had opened the resort’s 600m-long main piste. Given how marginal skiing in Scotland can be, it’s not hard to see how the Snowfactory could be a real game-changer.

When I called Meldrum at the start of this week to find out how things were going, he told me that although the crowdfunding campaign hadn’t hit its target he had still figured out a way of getting a Snowfactory on the hill by late November or early December:

“Our hope was that by now we would have raised the £190,000 needed [with the rest of the £430,000 project costs coming from a bank loan and Highlands and Islands Enterprise]. Unfortunately the crowdfunding’s been a little bit slower than we’d hoped, but it’s still been amazing – we’ve now raised £52,000.”

“Over the last week we’ve been talking to TechnoAlpin and they’ve said they’re quite happy to do a lease with option to buy, so they’ll lease the unit to us for this season then we’ve got until the end of April to come up with the other £140,000. We’re planning to do that through continued crowdfunding and we’ve also got a couple of big events. We’re planning a big concert for 1,600 people in the car park in April so that should hopefully raise a fair whack of the money we need.”

Last season was the worst on record for Scotland’s ski centres, and it was particularly bad at Glencoe, which was only able to offer 32 days of skiing. This year, however, if everything goes according to plan, Meldrum hopes to be able to start making snow in early December and open for skiing towards the end of the month. If a track currently being built from the Base Station to the Plateau is completed in time, the Snowfactory will be transported up the mountain and used to create a beginner area and freestyle park in Coire Pollach; if not, it will be used to put snow on the artificial slope by the car park and also to complete the lower 300m of the access run from the Plateau to the Base Station.

“If we have a really good winter, it’s sometimes only the last two or three hundred metres down to the car park that needs snow cover,” says Meldrum, “so if we can build snow there then in a really good snowy winter that might be the place for it to be.”

CairnGorm Mountain recently announced that they will also be trialling a Snowfactory this season, from 1 December until 31 January, and the Lecht will run a trial in February and March, so even if the unthinkable happens, and we get another disastrous winter, at least there should be some guaranteed snowsliding on offer in both the east and the west. n

To donate to the Glencoe Mountain Snowmaking Project, click here