Snowfactories help Scottish ski resorts weather a disappointing start to the season

The new Snowfactory at the Glencoe Mountain ski resort
The new Snowfactory at the Glencoe Mountain ski resort
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Scotland’s mountains have finally have got their act together and turned the right colour for the time of year, courtesy of the first proper snowfalls of 2019. The long-range forecasts have been pointing to a late-January cold snap for a while, too, so hopefully this week’s falls will be a taste of more substantial white stuff deliveries to come.

Scotland’s ski resorts could certainly do with some good news about now: after a spot of heavy snow in mid-December, it’s been mild, mild, mild in the mountains. So mild, in fact, that the folks at the Scottish Avalanche Information Service recently suggested that winter 2019 has “failed to instal” and somebody somewhere needed to try “turning it off and turning it back on again.”

Speaking of turning things off and on again, three of Scotland’s ski resorts now have Snowfactories – giant artificial snowmaking machines which are capable of producing snow even when the temperature is well above zero. However, if the season to date has illustrated anything, it’s that even these hi-tech gizmos have their limitations. At the Lecht and Glencoe, which each stumped up the cash for a single Snowfactory, they have been able to offer limited snowsports, mostly for beginners, but the wet, mild conditions have made life difficult, with the artificial snow sometimes melting almost as quickly as the machines have been able to churn it out.

“From a skiing point of view our success has been very limited,” admits Glencoe’s Andy Meldrum. “Only a few hundred people have been able to enjoy some early season snowsports – mainly beginners, people on a SnowsportScotland instructor course and people using our freestyle park. The biggest benefit has been to the hundreds who were able to enjoy sledging over the festive period, which wouldn’t have been possible without the Snowfactory.”

That’s a lot more business than Glencoe would have been able to drum up otherwise, but it also illustrates that perhaps a single Snowfactory might not be enough to keep a piste going in Scotland’s challenging climate. At the Lecht, where they have invested in a unit the same size as Glencoe’s, they have been encountering similar problems during periods of particularly wet and mild weather, and like Glencoe there have been some days when they have been unable to open for skiing. However, according to the Lecht’s Annette McIntosh, the Snowfactory has still been a good investment.

“We’ve been open since 1 December with factory snow,” she says, “and it was busy over the Christmas holidays. It has certainly been worthwhile opening – if we didn’t have the Snowfactory we wouldn’t have had anyone passing through the doors at all, so it’s certainly been a boost.

“We have had a few issues with strong winds and mild temperatures,” she adds. “Although the factory can still produce the snow [in those conditions], it’s keeping it from blowing away and melting once it’s out that’s been the hard part. The strong winds haven’t been all bad though, as the wind powers our wind turbine which is in turn powering the Snowfactory.”

Over at CairnGorm Mountain, meanwhile, the Snowfactory seems to have been a modest success. When it emerged in the autumn that the resort’s funicular was going to be out of action for the foreseeable future, Highlands and Islands Enterprise stepped in to prevent the ski season from turning into a complete wash-out and paid almost £1 million for an extra-large, double-decker Snowfactory to be installed on the resort’s lower slopes. Initial reports suggested the purpose of this unit was to ensure that surface lifts on the lower mountain would be able to operate in order to allow skiers to access natural snow higher up. However, as there hasn’t been much snow at higher altitudes worth accessing, using the Snowfactory combined with eight state-of-the-art snow canons, it has been possible to maintain a small beginner area even during the most ferocious periods of thaw.

It may have been a frustrating start to the season for Scotland’s ski resorts in terms of natural snow, then, but the last few weeks have at least provided a valuable learning experience for those with Snowfactories. Looking at the way things have gone at Glencoe and the Lecht, it seems that a single Snowfactory might not quite be sufficient to provide and maintain a beginner piste in extremely mild conditions.

That said, the weather really has been unseasonably warm, and both centres have still managed to offer snowsports; had the weather been even slightly colder or slightly drier, things could have turned out much more favourably. The relative success of the larger Snowfactory at CairnGorm, meanwhile, shows that a unit of that size, backed up by a battery of snow canons, can keep a piste going even in the most difficult conditions.

Anyway, hopefully that’s the Snowfactory research period over for 2019 and winter will now kick into gear, as somebody tries turning it off and turning it on again.