Chill Factore - The Story So Far - Speaker: David Sterland, Managing Director
Reporter Alan Brown
Those of you who missed David's talk missed a cracker. It was fascinating as it gave us an intimate background into our own ski slope rather than some far-away fantasy.
David explained that he had been involved in snow slopes before, having built Milton Keynes and Castleford. He knew it could be better, so he determined to do his own thing giving his slope more of an Alpine feel to make it more of a general attraction than just a slope. Manchester was chosen because there was a large skier community and little local competition.
After lengthy negotiations with bankers (for a £33 million start-up loan!), planners and Peel Holdings he was ready to start in 2006. I had been privileged to have had two site tours during construction, and like all building sites, was amazed with the progress from such apparent chaos. And I did get to see the cooling pipes switched on and had the thrill of seeing them freeze over.
I hadn't realised that Tamworth uses ice scrapings from the ice rink for their "snow". For Chill Factore it's the real thing. The glycol coolant operates at -12.5ºC whilst blast coolers keep the atmosphere at a steady -1.5ºC. They only make snow when closed as production creates a complete white-out. The temperature is reduced to -6ºC then chilled water and compressed air is forced through fans which create the near-natural snow. Each evening they add 5mm of snow equivalent to 16 tons of water!
So what happens to the surplus if you add 5mm a day we asked? A 4.5 ton Pisten Bully maintains an optimum depth of 50cm by a combination of pushing it back up the hill and removing any dirty stuff. David explained that, a bit like swimming pool water, the used snow needs proper disposal: it's pushed outside where pipes using surplus heat melt the snow and it is drained to the sewers. He explained it's too contaminated with bits of us to go into land drainage. Was this more information than we needed! Who would have thought that more surplus heat keeps the ground under the run-out area of the slope above freezing to prevent frost heave from ruining the foundations? So much had been learned from earlier slope!
As a club, we have been impressed with the quality of snow and David, who is obviously proud of his snow, explained why it is so good. Other slopes use their piste basher during the day, but not here. Like any good roast, snow needs to settle, so after the overnight grooming, it has a chance to reconstitute a little. This makes it more stable and removes the need for day-time grooming. This helps explain why alpine resorts usually only groom at night too. Spreading the first snow they made was also a challenge: the main blowers created massive heaps but they didn't want to use portable blowers to redistribute the snow as this would alter its properties and mean the slope started with a permanent problem. They used their piste machine to push the snow around, but had to be very careful as there is a maximum loading on the slope that a basher on a pile of snow might have exceeded. Who would have thought it was so technical !
When it came to deciding the angle for the beginner and main slopes, it was back to first principles. Out came the clinometer on real alpine slopes to decide what was best. The answer is 10º for the beginner slope and 15º for the main area. They have realised though, that, because the slope is so long - 180 metres - it might have been better if there had been distinct breaks and start points as beginners progressing to the main slope have some difficulty with the sheer size.
Another unexpected challenge was the Poma lifts. The specification for them described the slope angle in degrees whilst Poma work in percentages, and it wasn't until installation that this misunderstanding was realised. Result? The cable isn't parallel to the slope which gives us an awkward scramble up to the start of the lift and the buttons are at the wrong height. Just another teething problem to correct. This time by cutting off the stanchion and adding a little wedge.
David showed us hilarious footage of himself, the project manager and Andrew Lockerbie (BASI Chairman who will be coming to speak to us in February) struggling to be the first ever Chill Factore skiers. The slope was still designated a building site, so they had to wear fluorescent jackets and hard hats! They had "snow" to contend with that looked like avalanche debris. None of them managed a clear run, and David's explanation of why he skied into the wall was almost credible! We saw a YouTube-style video of their IT manager whooping and squeaking down the luge run. Made us want to have a go!
And how is business? The business plan projected 500,000 users a year, and as the operation comes to the end of its first year, David was able to say that that estimate was about right. There had been some unexpected peaks, like the one in July caused by local schools realising they hadn't achieved their target away days and opting for a trip to his slope. The beginner area and the luge and tube slopes have had more use than expected over the summer whilst the main slope has had less.
David can appreciate that, despite all his previous experience, there are still improvements to make. Although he is still concentrating on making Chill Factore a success, I don't imagine that a man with so much energy will stop at this. Will he be building the perfect indoor ski slope in Zermatt in 20 years time?
It was good to understand how much effort has been invested in providing us with the slope we've always wanted. As a club we have lacked a focal point and Chill Factore could become the clubhouse of the future. Don't tell David, but we're working on it!
PS: in case you were wondering, the fabulous vinyl wall coverings depict scenes from somewhere in Romania.