Words: Martin Schultz | Photos: Shawn van Zyl & Kevin Sawyer | Videos: Martin Schultz & Shawn van Zyl
"When Mother Nature does not provide I will make my own." - Martin Schultz
Photos credit: Shawn van Zyl & Kevin Sawyer
Snow; we all love it, especially snow-covered mountains that provide hours of fun and entertainment as you happily carve your way down hard-packed pistes. But as hot-blooded South Africans (and a weak currency to boot), what are our options when the need for some perfect corduroy slopes sets in? We head to the snow-clad slopes of Lesotho.
For the past nine years, I have had the enviable job of making snow, amongst other things, at the Afriski Ski & Mountain Resort in Lesotho. Becoming a snowmaker was not a career I had ever thought about. In fact, when I first skied in Lesotho I didn't really care how the snow got there or that it was man-made. All I wanted to do was ride it.
Although Lesotho generally receives a fair amount of snow during the three-month-long winter season, there is not enough for people to ski or snowboard on, hence the need to make our own with snowmaking machines. And even though it's man-made, and contrary to popular belief, the snow is not fake or artificial. It is as real as the snow that falls from the clouds.
Photos credit: Shawn van Zyl & Kevin Sawyer
The right conditions
However, these machines do not make snow under just any conditions, nor can it be pre-made. We still need Mother Nature to play along and bring us the right conditions to make our white gold. To figure out when to make snow, and make sure it is the right kind, ski resorts depend on the expertise of snowmakers, who have an in-depth knowledge of the weather and changing weather patterns.
To determine when the conditions are right we need the right humidity combined with the right temperature, to create what's called the wet-bulb temperature. The wet-bulb temperature is a function of the dry-bulb temperature and relative humidity, the amount of water vapour in the air. Liquid or solid water cools itself by evaporating some water as water vapor. This releases heat, thus lowering the energy level in the water. When there is more water vapor in the atmosphere, water or snow can't evaporate as much because the air is already saturated with water to a high degree. Consequently, water cools more slowly when the humidity is high, and much quicker when the humidity is low. Therefore, humidity is an important factor when determining the right conditions. For example, if the humidity is 5%, we can make snow when it's 3°C outside. However, if the humidity is 100%, then we can only make good snow when it's -3°C outside.
The perfect mix
Now snow is not just snow; there's dry and wet snow. Dry snow has a relatively low amount of water, so it is very light and powdery. This type is excellent for skiing because skis glide over it easily without getting bogged down. Wet snow also plays an important role on ski slopes and is used to build up the powder depth. The wetness is dependent on the temperature and humidity outside, as well as the size of the water droplets launched by the snowmaking machine. To get the perfect consistency, and because temperature and humidity levels vary from point to point on a ski slope, snowmakers will adjust each machine accordingly.
To keep the slopes well covered and level all through the winter season, snowmakers make snow as often as possible to provide an adequate base, which is required to sustain the ski season. Regardless of how cold it gets (and it can get up to -15), Afriski's passionate and dedicated night-time operations team, commonly known as night walkers, take to the slopes armed with a headlight to make sure that the equipment is producing the correct quality of snow that visitors to the resort have come to expect.
Night-time work, cold... you are probably wondering at this point what is so 'enviable' about being a snowmaker. Well, there is nothing better than strapping on your snowboard and riding down a mountain of perfect, pristine snow you have just created. It's addictive and calming all at the same time. And then there's the satisfaction that comes from seeing the happy, smiling faces of our visitors as make their way down the slope, day after day, year after year.
For more information about snowmaking, Afriski Ski and Mountain Resort offers a snowmaking tour. Visit http://www.afriski.net/