Birds of Prey volunteers set the course in Beaver Creek |

Birds of Prey volunteers set the course in Beaver Creek

Melanie Wong
Beaver Creek, CO Colorado
NWS BOP volunteers 1 KA 12-05-08

BEAVER CREEK, Colorado ” It took Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal about 1 minute and 43 seconds to claim a victory on the Beaver Creek, Colorado Birds of Prey downhill course ” a course that took weeks to build, and volunteer crews days to prepare.

The four-event race, which draws top racers from around the world, is the result of hundreds of volunteers and months of planning, said volunteer coordinator Mary Pownall.

“It takes a lot of preparation,” said Pownall, a Vail resident who has been helping run races since Vail hosted World Cup championships in the 1980s. “No one has any idea what goes into it who doesn’t do it. It’s a huge, huge job.”

In the early, frigid hours of Friday morning, race course crews were hard at work shoveling snow from Thursday’s storm off the slope before the downhill competition began.

“A couple inches of snow can end up being 3 feet piled up, and most of it has to be hand shoveled out,” said Chief of Course Greg Johnson.

Because the course is primed to be incredibly hard and icy, the 7 inches of snow Beaver Creek got Thursday complicated race preparations.

Beaver Creek snowcat operators had already been up half the night clearing the powder, but there was still plenty to be done.

The piles of snow had to be transported by chutes down to the bottom of the hill, then course workers had to “slip ski” the slope, pushing the snow down by sliding sideways down the course on skis.

Johnson said crews had to rebuild half the course ” half the safety netting had to be put up again, and course boundaries had to be redrawn with blue dye.

While some of the course workers are Beaver Creek race crew employees who start building the course as early as October, the majority are volunteers from around the valley, the United States, and even other countries.

Some volunteers are local mountain patrollers, ski club members from around the country, or ski instructors from overseas, and many have been helping run the races for years, Pownall said.

“I keep volunteering because of the people,” Pownall said. “It’s a really good group, and we have a lot of fun together. There’s a lot of camaraderie, and it’s very exciting.”

Beaver Creek Chief Operating Officer John Garnsey, also a longtime race volunteer, said there are workers from all over the world who take their vacations each year to come work the races.

“It’s not an easy job ” they’re shoveling deep snow and spending hours and hours on the mountain,” he said. “And they have no other connection other than that they love the races.”

The job begins almost a full week before the races, setting up banners, gates and safety netting.

Especially if there is snow to be shoveled, work days can be up to 12 hours, said Nick Asoian, a volunteer with Ski and Snowboard Club Vail. The club usually brings one of the largest groups of volunteers to the races, he said.

“Sometimes (working) days on end, it really fries your legs,” said Asoian, an alpine coach with the race club. “But then, on race day, it’s beautiful and perfect.”

Once the races are on, the work doesn’t stop ” gatekeepers man the gates and others patch and smooth the course for the racers.

Volunteer Nate Asoian, Nick’s brother, has what he considers to be one of the best race-day jobs. As a forerunner, he takes a trial run down the track minutes before the races start to make sure the course is safe and test timing and television equipment. Usually forerunners are skiers from the U.S. development team. Nate Asoian, who races with Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, said he has been forerunning for six years.

“I do it because it’s fun, and it’s a cool course. It’s a great opportunity,” he said. “You’re going right before the best in the world. It’s really difficult, the air is really big, it’s steep, and it’s fast, everybody just loves it.”

Besides the satisfaction of knowing they helped produce a world-class race course, volunteers said it is simply exciting to be able to watch top professional racers up close.

“I get kind of antsy when I’m around them,” Nate Asoian admitted. “I’m star-struck, more or less.”

Nick Asoian compared the experience to standing on the 50-yard line next to a coach during a Super Bowl game.

“It’s pretty cool for (the volunteers) to see their heroes coming down the hill,” he said.

Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or

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