BEAVER CREEK – Snow doesn’t build a World Cup course. People do.Last year, American Daron Rahlves stood atop the podium after flying down the Birds of Prey downhill course to take gold.What takes a racer less than two minutes to descend requires an army of people putting in close to 25,000 man hours to set up.”There are people within our organization who spent five to six months working on this event,” said Greg Johnson, the manager of racing at Beaver Creek. “For one week of racing, it’s easy to overlook how much it takes to put everything together.”Building a 2.6-kilometer course for this year’s races Nov. 30-Dec. 3 in a flat, accessible area would be challenging enough, but Birds of Prey affords Johnson’s crew no such luxuries.For starters, the terrain is steep, with some areas at a 45-degree slope.”It’s a difficult place to make snow,” said Gary Shimanowitz, snowmaking manager at Beaver Creek. “It’s so steep, and you blow the snow in the middle of the night, so you have to be careful.” Snowcats use winch anchors positioned on the trails, almost as if they were rockclimbers. And the course is also halfway up the mountain, which means transporting material like bleachers, big screens and satellite trucks is an adventure.”All of that needs to get up there, and you have a time table and are keeping your fingers crossed the weather doesn’t set in,” said John Dakin of the Vail Valley Foundation. While too much snow can cause logistical problems, Dakin, Shimanowitz, Johnson and hundreds of others are hoping for cold weather.”We’re doing quite well with the cold temperatures in the latter part of October,” Johnson said. “We’re ahead of where we usually are, which is a great situation to be in.”Whales and whales
Although Beaver Creek doesn’t open until Nov. 22, the upper part of the Birds of Prey course (from the downhill start to The Brink) has its race-sized base complete.”From the super-G start to The Pumphouse, we’re making good progress for this time of year,” Johnson said.The course will have a base of close to 1-meter of man-made snow. Snowmaking guns are positioned every 100 feet, and pump out a mixture of water and air that piles up into giant snow whales, given the name for their resemblance to the animal.”We make the snow a little wetter,” Shimanowitz said, noting the snow on which World Cup skiers zoom across is a lot different than the rest of the man-made snow on the mountain. “(For the course), we don’t let the whale sit. When you let it sit, the water leeches out, and you have a better product for you and me.”But the snow on the Birds of Prey gets the royal, wet treatment. Immediately after the whales form, Snowcats groom the whales and then till the snow to make it harder.And then, if the snow seems a bit dry, the crew will open up the snowguns without air and just spray water on top of the already compacted snow.”The most fundamental thing is to ensure that we have a solid base on the hill that’s consistent,” Johnson said. “Then we are doing the best thing we can do to run a fair race.”To make snow, the web bulb temperature (which factors in humidity) needs to be consistently below 30 degrees. Starting Oct. 20, a streak of cold days allowed Shimanowitz and his team to get a start on what will end up being about 30-million gallons of water spread across the course.Calm before stormEven before temperatures are below freezing, there’s plenty of work to be done. After Labor Day, Johnson meets with a crew to set lay out the hoses for the guns, make sure all the equipment is working properly and prepare more than 7-miles of fencing.”It’s really efficient to get all the materials up there before the snow falls – it saves us a huge amount of time rather than having to haul it up (with a Snowcat) later on,” Johnson said.
There are two kind of fences that adorn the side of the course: An A-net, which is orange and almost 5 meters high and blue has a slip skirt to allow snow to be pushed under; and a B-net, which is 2 meters high and is placed throughout the course in two to three layers.About 80 percent of the A-nets are prestrung onto the towers in September and hung in the air. Once all the snowmaking is complete, the A-nets are tied down to the snow.At the bottom of the course, the giant propane tanks that heat the VIP tents are already in place, and other large pieces will be moving up as the races near.Flying highAnyone who has seen a World Cup downhill knows there are some jumps where racers spend serious time airborne. What viewers may not know, however, is how much crafting goes into the jumps.”The details are extremely important to get it exactly right,” said Johnson, who last year became the first American to be the FIS technical delegate at the World Cup in Kitzbuhel, Austria.There are three areas to which Johnson pays close attention for making a well-groomed jump: The in-run grade, or the grade of the hill upon entering the jump; the middle shape of the lip on the jump and the landing slope area.On the lip of the jump, a few inches can mean the difference between a smooth, 200-foot travel with a seamless landing and a more vertical journey that leads to bone-jarring crashes.”The lip needs to roll you off and let you flow down the hill,” Johnson said. “If the (ski) tips are coming up, you have a problem.”Johnson said that skiers can travel 200-210 feet off the Golden Eagle or Red Tail jumps, which are as big as any on the World Cup circuit.But it’s not just the jumps that make the course enjoyable for fans and the racers. “You’ve gotta have a mixture,” Johnson said. “The terrain on the course is constantly changing from one turn to the next. The snow surface is changing in slope … one reason it’s difficult for the athlete is that it’s steep and challenging, and that makes it difficult for us.”
For the next three weeks, the a crew of up to 250 will assemble on a daily basis to make snow and groom the course. Today, they will start to put in the gates mirroring last year’s course to make sure the terrain is panning out correctly.And before too long, the bleachers will be up, the skiers will be on the hill and bells will ring.Sports Writer Ian Cropp can be reached at 748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Birds of Prey facts:Course lenght: 2.6 kilometersGallons of water used in snowmaking: About 30 millionAmount of fencing: 7.2 milesMan-hours of preparation: 25,000Speed of racers at finish: 80-85 mphDistance traveled on some jumps: 200 feetVail, Colorado