At A-Basin, warm temps force ski clubs to get creative with early-season training
November 4, 2016
The bluebird conditions at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area were better for sunbathing than slalom skiing, but the athletes with Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club were just happy to be on the snow.
On Thursday morning, a group of U-12 skiers with the Steamboat club were taking a break at the base of Black Mountain Express with their coach between fun runs down High Noon, the sole strip of lift-accessed snow open in Colorado (and the West). Record-high temps and little precipitation through most of October forced hills like Loveland Ski Area and Keystone Resort to delay their opening days, and so at least a half-dozen youth clubs and several international teams, such as the Japanese ski team, loaded onto the strip at A-Basin with everyone else to make the most of early season training. The clubs get no special treatment — they buy day passes like the general public, with no special lanes like teams can have at Loveland and Copper Mountain Resort — and that means coaches get creative.
"We can still be very productive out here," head U-12 coach Chantal Knapp said as she watched her group toss snowballs and play in the slush. "It forces the kids to be very reactive to what's happening and the environment. There were some runs there at the end that were getting crowded."
Knapp brought a group of about 13 youth skiers with her on Thursday, or about one-fourth of the 40-person U-12 team. The team was originally supposed to start early season training this past weekend at Loveland, but the ski area wasn't able to consistently make snow until Nov. 1. Loveland Ski Club started using portions of the upper runs at their home mountain on Oct. 28, according to an email from John Hale, the club's executive director, but it's currently the only youth team training there.
"I think it helps that this is an intermediate run," Knapp said, and then paused as a large gaggle of skiers and snowboarders swooshed into the base area. "The people who are coming out can handle what this is like, and the snow conditions are super icy by this time of day. I really don't think a beginner would do OK."
Those super-icy conditions weren't good for race training, Knapp said, but the bumps and ice patches and nearby skiers were good for building awareness and confidence on the skis. She and the team arrived in time for first chair at 9 a.m., along with the majority of ski clubs, and were ready to wrap up with coach-led skiing by noon. The international teams left even earlier — they can't risk injury before they've even seen gates, Knapp guessed — but most will be back again on Friday before taking a break over the weekend.
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"I've heard a lot of people feel privileged to be here," Knapp said. "They know it's the only run in the West so they're being respectful of everyone else."
From winter to near-winter
Earlier in the morning, the U-14 crew from Lake Louise Ski Team out of Alberta, Canada, was packing up for the day. The crowd had just started to fill out — the line at Black Mountain was short, but the final face of High Noon was constantly dotted with people — and the older kids were finished with their training for the day. Some wore race suits, others wore jackets and all had expected to start their ski season at Loveland. So did head U-14 coach Julie Kundrick.
"We were originally supposed to do Loveland but came here instead," Kundrick said while her team packed up. The team had no other choice, Kundrick said. Coaches and athletes were already committed to Colorado: the club schedules early season training trips as early as June and July, she said, and they'll be in the state until Nov. 16 — come snow or sunshine.
Funny enough, one of Lake Louise's neighboring ski resorts, Sunshine Village, opened Thursday morning after one of the coldest Octobers in Alberta history. The resort opened with a base of roughly 29 inches. Yes, 29 inches.
"Thanks to an incredible October, Sunshine Village became the first Canadian resort to open for the 2016-2017 winter season," a post from Open Snow's Sam Collentine read early on Thursday morning. "Nov. 3 marks Sunshine's earliest opening in over 30 years."
The kicker: the Lake Louise ski club left for Colorado on Nov. 2 — just a day before Sunshine opened — flying nearly 1,200 miles for crammed training at A-Basin when they could have stayed home. But, again, the club committed to early season training in July, so Kundrick and executive program director Grant Richardson were making the most of it.
But there is hope on the horizon. Open Snow's powder guru, Joel Gratz, is predicting at least a few inches on Saturday night and Sunday from a slow-moving storm. He expects snow above 10,000 feet during the day and above 8,000 feet at night — with a warning.
"This storm will not mark the big transition from a warm fall to colder and consistent winter weather," Gratz wrote on Thursday. "But it will coat the higher elevations in snow and will keep temperatures on the cooler side for a few more days, which could allow resorts to continue to make snow."
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