Preparing the Birds of Prey |

Preparing the Birds of Prey

Veronica Whitney

Making snow and pushing it around, grooming 45-degree slopes, watering the down and setting safety nets and setting sponsors’ banners is all part of the backstage of a World Cup ski event, requiring hundreds of people.

“We just get an amazing team that makes it happen,” says Greg Johnson, the chief of course. “Everything in this hill is a challenge because it’s so steep and the terrain constantly changes.”

For the past few weeks, groomers, snowmakers, race crew and hundreds of volunteers from the Vail Valley Foundation, which organizes the event, have been working nonstop on the course, designed by the Swiss Bernhard Russi in 1995.

“The crew for course maintenance has gradually built up since September, when we started with seven,” Johnson says. “The 100-crew a day we had this week will build up to 275 by Friday.”

In September, maintenance crews started getting nets on the hill, staging fences and doing TV cable work, Johnson says.

These days, hundreds of shovels and rakes vigilantly await, aligned in the snow at the staging area at the top of Beaver Creek’s Westfall Lift, or Chair 9.

“The biggest challenge for us is if the weather gets bad. Natural snow is our biggest enemy,” says Pat O’Connor, head of the Beaver Creek grooming crew. “If it snows, we get rid of it. The volunteers will shovel the snow out of the course and we’ll blow it into the woods. We have a snowblower on a winch cat so we can go in very steep terrain. You don’t want any traces of soft snow on the course.”

If there is a new foot of snow on race day, O’Connor says, the race would most likely be canceled.

“You wouldn’t have enough time to prepare it right,” he says. “You need to start all over again with the preparations.”

To build a race course, O’Connor says, all they need is low temperatures to make snow. Last winter, the Birds of Prey World Cup races had to be canceled because it hadn’t been cold enough in the weeks prior to the event.

“Snowmaking is key to the preparation of the course,” says O’Connor, who has 20 years experience as a groomer, including World Cup courses at Vail. After dozens of sessions of snowmaking, grooming and watering, the 8,600-feet course on Beaver Creek’s Golden Eagle gets hard as concrete, says O’Connor, who was among the four groomers from Beaver Creek to go to the Salt Lake Winter Olympics in February to prepare the downhill course at Snowbasin, Utah.

“We make snow and we get some piles of at least 30 feet,” he says. “Then we go with the snowcats and spread it around the course. Then we groom it, then we water it and then we groom it again and then we water it again. It has to be very hard. If it isn’t, the race could be suspended.”

Preparing a course like the Birds of Prey can be treacherous, though. Because the course is so steep, O’Connor, 44, of Eagle and his team of five typically drive “winchcats” – snowcats anchored to a tree or another anchor point on the hill.

“Seventy percent of the course has to be done with winch machines,” he says. “Some sections at the top are at a 45-degree angle. If the cable or the winch breaks, it could be disastrous.”

Snowmakers, however, have the most dangerous job during course preparation, O’Connor says.

“They work up and down the hill, sometimes at night, and it’s usually wet,” he says.

Final preparation includes injecting water under the snow on the softer spots. Then, all that’s left is setting the course.

These days, O’Connor and his team have been working 14- to 18-hour shifts.

Helmuth Schmazl of the International Ski Federation, or FIS, will set the downhill course. For the super-G, the federation will choose the coach of a ski team, Johnson says.

Anchoring the nets also is a key safety element, helping to protect ski racers who may slide off course at 70 mph.

“Birds of Prey is definitely one of the top four courses in the world for steepness, jumps (there are seven) and difficulty,” O’Connor says.

This week, O’Connor and his crew are on call 24 hours a day while FIS officials check the course.

“Preparing this course is a challenge and it’s very difficult, but that’s why I really love doing it,” says Jason Rakow, 31, of Avon, who was part of the Olympic grooming team.

“If it wasn’t for our humor, we wouldn’t make it through,” O’Connor says with a laugh.

One of 500 volunteers, 70-year-old Diana Johnson of West Vail, has been shoveling and raking snow for more than eight hours a day this week.

“We do whatever they need,” says Johnson, who has volunteered in past years, too. “It’s fun and you meet people.”

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at

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