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Davos Hit by Heaviest Snow in 66 Years as Orange Gnomes Clear Up

A snow-coverd road in Davos on Jan. 24, 2012. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Delegates arriving at the Swiss resort of Davos this week had to surmount one final obstacle on their journeys to the World Economic Forum: five feet of snow.

Heavy snowfall during the past two months pushed average levels at the Alpine town to 1.55 meters, the second-highest for Jan. 24 since data were first compiled 66 years ago, according to the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos. Risks from sliding snow are mounting as total accumulation for the winter rose to a record and drifts reached almost twice as high as last year, the Institute said.

“We’ve been plowing snow almost non-stop for the past two months,” said Norbert Gruber, who oversees 40 vehicles and a staff of street cleaners dubbed “gnomes in orange” by the local newspaper, referring to their colored overalls. “The snow is giving us sleepless nights because we have to start clearing at 2 a.m. in order to avoid traffic.”

Gruber and his team are trying to ensure snow drifts and blizzards don’t prove too great a hindrance to the 2,600 delegates, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates, who are attending the 42nd annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. Street cleaners are dumping tons of snow on the frozen Lake Davos to clear roads for limousines transporting participants from hotels to the conference center.

‘Just Amazing’

“It’s beautiful here. Just amazing,” said Keith Trent, president of commercial businesses at Duke Energy Corp. in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the average annual snowfall is 5.5 inches.

As the temperature dropped to minus 5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit) yesterday, Vijay Poonoosamy, vice president for international and public affairs at Etihad Airways in Abu Dhabi, said he wasn’t fazed.

“It’s chilly in Abu Dhabi right now at 16 degrees and I was freezing,” said Poonoosamy. At the World Economic Forum, which Poonoosamy is attending for the fourth time, “I’m not even cold,” he said.

On the 2,663-meter high Weissfluhjoch mountain overlooking Davos, snow piled up as high as 2.64 meters yesterday, a record for Jan. 24 since data were first compiled in 1936.

“We’re happy when it snows,” said Claudio Rupp, head of the Top Secret Skiing School, which counts on some forum attendees taking a break from the scheduled events to hit the slopes. “To us, it’s no problem,” he said, declining to reveal names of past participants who had squeezed in ski lessons during their time at Davos.

Told that the snowfall was the worst in decades, Nestle SA Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe bristled. “Worst? It’s the best!” the 67-year-old executive said. “This is what winter looks like.”

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