Over the last few weeks, I had been looking at the webcams around the Seefeld plateau. Sadly, there was no snow in that corner of the Austrian Tyrol! Well, high up on the very tops of the mountains, there was a smattering. Basically, the white stuff hadn’t arrived! I had reluctantly accepted that my usual seasonal mountain pursuits of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing just wouldn’t be happening! When you’re booking flights and accommodation many months ahead, it is impossible to predict what the conditions will be like. There is always that gamble. On my flight out of the UK, I sat gazing from the plane’s window at the flat expanse of snow-coloured clouds far below.
Well, at least I can go for a walk! Let’s be honest, if you’re into alpine environs, it is always possible to get out and enjoy yourself on foot. Just to be absorbed among the mountains is enough – the snow is quite literally, the icing on the cake. It’ll be okay. A consolatory face was being put on!
I always fly to Seefeld at Christmas. Last year’s trip had been similar: no snow! There is so much talk of a changing climate. The big question: is this to be a permanent thing? Will there be less snow falling in the mountains, will the first snows fall later in the season and only occur higher up? The climate has often fluctuated in the Alps, over the centuries glaciers have both increased and decreased in length. During the Little Ice Age after medieval times, glaciers were increasing in their volume. However, if you chat to elderly folk living in high alpine regions they will provide a great deal of anecdotal evidence of how glaciers have receded during their lifetime.
At present, there is so much convincing scientific evidence available telling us that, as a planet, we are heating up. This conclusion has far greater repercussions than merely whether or not there will be snow in the mountains for us to play upon! I refer to some of the low-lying atoll nations that, if the global heat-up continues, may literally have entire islands taken over by rising water levels. Such a notion I often reflect upon. I once lived on Kiribati, an atoll nation of the Pacific.
We landed at Innsbruck airport amidst the colours of green and grey from the fields, forests, buildings and mountain sides – all void of snow. An hour later we were at our hotel in Seefeld. And, as is my annual habit, I walked off to the ‘Sport Norz’ ski shop to speak to Hannes, the proprietor, about the current snow conditions. As I turned the corner to enter Hannes’ shop, I was pleasantly surprised! It was incredible! I pinched myself in case I was in fantasy land. Leading away from the village was a wide line of snow disappearing into the distance! I couldn’t believe my eyes! After a hand-shake from Hannes and getting fitted- out with a pair of skis, I was soon on that snow.
I skied off and around a three-kilometre ski track on a well-prepared surface! My gloom lifted, like a dissipating fog. I went around again and continued these circuits throughout each day of the Christmas period. Okay, the 250 kilometres of cross-country trails which the area is famed for, couldn’t be skied. Likewise, all of the designated snowshoe trails were out of the question. But, this small langlauf trail was so unexpected and was a total delight to ski! There were many similar smiling faces out there appreciating this snowy loipe of fun!
The track had been deliberately planned for and carefully constructed by the Seefeld resort. In 2019 the Nordic World Ski Championships are due to take place upon this famous plateau. Conscious of this fact, resort planners had decided to make sure Seefeld had suitable snow for athletes to train upon which could also be used to hold competitions. In addition to this professional use, other cross-country skiers would be allowed to use the track.
Seefeld was following similar decisions made by the cross-country centres of Ramsau and Davos in the Alps. As current weather patterns have proved, early winter snow cannot be guaranteed so alternatives had been sought. The snow used in the construction of this trail is down to a process known as ‘snow farming’. This requires snow being collected during the previous winter, then buried and finally covered with wood chips.
The store was located in a cool, shaded area of forest where the summer’s sun would have minimal impact. Trees provided both shade and protection from both the sun and wind. Around 6,000 cubic metres of snow were deposited in Seefeld with a 25cm layer of wood chips covered over it. Only 20% of the stored snow melted during the summer.
In November, the snow was taken out of the ground and a three-kilometre track subsequently made. After being laid, snow guns have then produced artificial snow which can then be added to the surface of the track whenever required. The whole process is expensive costing around 50,000 euros but, measured against the possibility of losing competition prestige and the loss of visitors to a snow-less region, it is considered to be a worthwhile investment.
Olympiaregion Seefeld, the resort organisation responsible for its development, say that a great deal has been learnt from the entire process during the first year of snow farming. Now, there are plans to increase next year’s stored snow to 10,000 cubic metres!
After taking-off from Innsbruck on our journey home, I glanced out of the plane’s window. We flew over the Seefeld plateau. There below us was the track I had spent so many hours skiing around over the past days!
At this height, it was but a thin white line in a sea of grey and green. With winters in such disarray, would such features as snow farming be a necessity in future years? With a lack of snow, if we wish to continue enjoying our snow activities in mountains, it might well be a way forward.
Across the Alps and in North America, snow is falling later and in less quantity. Being fed by snowfall, the Alps has lost half of its glacier ice since the 1850s. It has been suggested that two-thirds of European ski resorts may have to close by 2100 through lack of snow. Similarly in the US, over half of the resorts in the North-East of the country might be forced to close within thirty years for a similar reason! In the West of the United States, it has been estimated that between 25 – 100 per cent of the snowpack in the mountains could be lost by 2100. These are indeed changing times and provide plenty of food for thought, not least for all of us snow enthusiasts and for those involved in winter sport industries!
But, as I gazed out at the vast expanse of clouds, it was time to remember the fun I had skiing my Seefeld circuits. It was a time of reflection and to think of next Christmas. Rest assured, I’ll be booking some more time back in that place of guaranteed snow!