Peak season: behind the scenes at the snow

 While there was little snow on the ground for the season's opening, those behind the scenes at Mount Buller are already flat out. Clare Kermond reports.

MARCEL BOBERG - SNOW MAKER

IN THE wee small hours of the morning, when it's as cold as it's ever going to get, spare a thought for Marcel Boberg. Chances are, while the rest of us wake just long enough to pull an extra blanket onto the bed, Boberg's mobile has already rung and the young New Zealander is out of the bunk house and half-way to the workshop to start firing up Mount Buller's small army of snow-making machines.

Boberg is one of those in charge of what is romantically called "the snowflake factory", but the cluster of buildings close to Buller's summit are not the stuff of sweet fairy tales. Inside the main workshop, giant air compressors stand ready to push air through 160 snowmakers. Outside, a dozen grooming machines as big as tractors are ready to scrape the snow to where it is needed. A nearby dam supplies 170 million litres of recycled water for the snow makers.

Making snow, Boberg says, is all about compressed air and water. The fan guns, which look like oversized spotlights on wheels, and air water guns, which look like giant sprinkler spikes, spray out tiny particles of water that the cold, dry air turns into snow. And this brings us to the one other thing snowmakers need - the right weather.

Buller's machines have been in place for weeks but the conditions have not yet been right. It does not have to be below zero for the magic to happen, as long as the air is dry enough.

On Friday morning, Boberg, like everyone else on the mountain, is looking for snow. So far there is none coming from the skies and it is not cold and dry enough for Boberg and his team to swing into action. But standing in the winter sunshine, looking out across the dam to a stunning view of blue skies, mountains and gum trees, he agrees his workplace has some great side benefits.

"It has its moments. Then again, sometimes when it's 10 below with 100 kilometre winds and everyone's inside asleep ..."

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PHIL JOLLY - RESORT DOCTOR

AFTER 15 ski seasons spent in his clinic overlooking Mount Buller's Bourke Street ski run, Phil Jolly can tell what kind of ills and accidents a day will bring just by looking out his door. "On soft snow days it's knees, on sunny days when it has frozen overnight it's wrists. And if one person can dislocate a shoulder, there'll be others."

Jolly's clinic is a pint-sized accident and emergency department. When the season is in full swing there will be two doctors, two nurses, two receptionists and a radiographer. Anyone coming in under their own steam enters via a cheerful reception area. Those worse off will be brought in by the Ski Patrol, sliding in from the mountain through a pair of bright yellow double doors. Jolly is proud that Buller has what he believes to be the only X-ray machine on the Australian snow fields.

Once the white stuff is on the ground, Ski Patrol will bring in up to 50 people each day. He will treat everything from colds and flu to breaks, strains, dislocations and heart attacks. In an average season there will be about 120 head injuries. No skier or snowboarder, Jolly says, should tackle the runs without a helmet. Snowboarders can add wrist guards to that advice.

"Everyone will have a fall at some time, I fall about once a season and I've cracked a helmet. In any sport where there's speed involved and stationary objects you should be wearing a helmet."

LAURIE BLAMPIDE -SKI LIFT GENERAL MANAGER

LAURIE Blampide's corner office has an unbeatable view; sitting at the base of Bourke Street, above the ski school, the outlook is straight up the main ski run towards the summit. He's like a genial king surveying the busiest part of his domain.

On Friday, despite the view being brown grass and sunshine, and not a skier in sight, Blampide showed no disappointment. Buller Ski Lifts owns some of the best-known restaurants, cafes and hotels on the mountain, as well as the ski school, equipment hire and sales and and some rental accommodation. Whether it snows or not, the opening weekend is guaranteed to be good business for Blampide.

"People coming for the opening are coming for a lot of different reasons than to go skiing. They're the aficionados."

Blampide says the ski season has traditionally been isolated from the vagaries of the economy. He cites the 1990 recession as a bumper season and is relentlessly positive about both the current economic crisis and concerns over climate change.

Blampide, who started at Buller in 1996, says once there's snow on the ground he still makes time to get out on the slopes about nine days out of 10, regardless of the conditions. Looking out his window he says: "That's our market place, the factory floor."

ROSS TAYLOR -SKI SCHOOL DIRECTOR

ASK Ross Taylor when he learnt to ski and the sparky, whippet-thin 42-year-old is briefly stumped: "I've got no clear memory of learning to ski. It's a bit like walking, it just happened."

Taylor, now in charge of Buller's child-care centre and ski school, has been skiing on the mountain since he was "two-and-a-bit". From a family of keen skiers he became a competition racer and made the national team. before retiring and taking up instructing in 1993.

At its busiest, the ski school will employ 140 full-time staff and 160 part-timers. But with no snow and no hope of even the rawest beginner strapping on skis, instructors are slowly drifting back to the mountain to prepare for the season.

As soon as there is snow, Taylor's phone will start ringing with instructors ready to work and people wanting lessons. Over an average season, 100,000 people will learn to ski or snowboard at Buller. On a busy weekend 3000 people can sign up for classes. The child-care centre caters for children three months to three years, and those over three can start strapping on skis (snowboarders have to wait until they're seven).

Is there an ideal age to learn? Taylor doesn't want to put anyone off, but it's clear that like many things, learn it young and it'll stick with you forever.

"We can teach people at three years quite easily but I've taught 70-year-olds who catch on just as well. Kids do tend to brush themselves off and get up again, whereas adults might need a bit more coaxing back.

The Age stayed at Mount Buller courtesy of Mount Buller Ski Lifts.

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