Why do we have to ski all the time?, asks Dominik Siegrist, an actual avid skier and leader of whatsalp – a group of hikers that are crossing the Alps on foot from Vienna to Nice observing changes in the alpine realities in the last two decades.
The answer probably lies in the business that circumscribes this rather expensive winter sport. Planai & Hochwurzen, the largest operator in the Schladming area, has a turnover of 44 million euro and 430 employees in wintertime. Between November and April the little town records over 420,000 arrivals (data for 2015). The figure speaks for itself.
Bernhard Schupfer, ski slopes manager on Planai talked to us and made the case in defense of artificial snow. This is not the carbonic snow that used to cool down ice creams before freezers were invented; there are no chemicals, no additives. That would be strictly forbidden mainly for overt legal matters, but also because of formal logic: all around, organic farmers make their bio produce, he says.
In the ‘80s there was sometimes little snow even though temperatures were low enough. The problem today, following climate change dire effects, is that there are many variations in snowfall. Two years ago there was the largest quantity of snowfall in 50 years. In the coming years it plummeted. Plus, air quality in the area has improved, while pollution particles from industries actually are instrumental in triggering natural snow formation. Cherry on snow top, there are two Natura2000 areas around Planai and all these operations are allowed.
Rainwater is being collected into artificial lakes as well as the overflow from higher altitude springs. Then, between November and April it is cooled down to a few degrees, carried through 40 km of underground pipes and artificially turned into snow at a price of 2-3 euro per cubic meter. Schupfer says that the high amount of water present in the ski slopes due to compacted snow encourages the growth of the grass and benefits to the farmers.
We can think of artificial snow as an utter measure of adaptation to climate change. Initiatives like snow farming might be the “natural” way to do it, however, let us make no mistake, artificial snow is the snow that does not fall from the sky and that makes it straightforwardly unnatural.
It isn’t all about skiing. Schladming offers numerous opportunities for tourists in the warm season as well. In a pan-European and more optimistic perspective, the peak allows for a fantastic view: one can see the Carpathians, Tatras, in Slovakia and the Triglav in Slovenia.
The operators manage not only cable cars but also buses. Schladming enjoys connections to all of Europe. “Basically we connect cities from Stockholm to Montenegro. Winter means ski, but now summer hiking and cycling is developing,” says Georg Bliem, CEO of Planai & Hochwurzen.
It is hard to figure out a turnover or all investments as they started in early 1980s. Now the guests are three times more than in those times.
Nevertheless, this big lucrative business model that Schladming is applying has a flipside. The wastewater treatment plant had to deal with a big test in 2012 to prepare the world ski championships whilst 31,000 bowel movements of ski lovers were happening at the same time. Kleer Otmar states that the wastewater plant that he is managing passed the test with an odorless brilliance.
Water gets purified by microorganisms and 95% flows right back into the river Enns where nature does the final stage of purification. The rest is composted and it has a further industrial use. They generate biogas while 50% of the energy is self-produced (photovoltaic 74 kW capacity).