ASPEN - Aspen Mountain is primed for next week's return of World Cup skiing.
Whether the host nation's top skier will be in the starting gates on Thanksgiving weekend remains a question, however.
On Thursday, the official "snow control date," Winternational organizers were given clearance to host a giant slalom and slalom here on Nov. 24 and 25. Conditions are so favorable that the U.S. Ski Team has been invited to train on the famed Ajax course Saturday, for a second consecutive year.
"I didn't think that was going to happen a week ago. We literally got this last storm at exactly the right time," chief of race Jim Hancock said Thursday evening. "It's great for the team - it generates buzz in town."
The pervasive buzz this week is concentrated on the status of reigning World Cup overall champion Lindsey Vonn. The 28-year-old, who skipped this weekend's season-opening slalom in Levi, Finland, to prepare for the Aspen races, was admitted to a hospital in Vail on Monday after experiencing "severe intestinal pain," according to The Associated Press.
Vonn was released Wednesday, but no additional details on her illness were available. She did not attend a ceremony in Vail to introduce the U.S. Ski Team on Thursday.
Publicist Lewis Kay on Wednesday told the AP that his client was resting comfortably but that no timetable has been established for her return.
Attempts to reach U.S. Ski Team alpine press officer Doug Haney on Thursday for an update on Vonn's condition were unsuccessful.
"I talked to (alpine director) Patrick Riml today, but I did not ask him about Lindsey. I don't have any insider information," Hancock said. "I hope she's able to come. ... It's great for ski racing and great for American ski racing. I'm certainly curious like any other ski fan."
Vonn finished 12th in GS in last year's Winternational, the lone U.S. stop on the women's World Cup circuit, before being scratched from the slalom because of lingering back pain.
She last competed in Soelden, Austria, in late October.
"Her spirits are high. It's crazy that one day you're healthy and the next day you're sick," teammate Julia Mancuso told the AP. "I talked to her. Hopefully, she will be back soon."
While Vonn likely is not near 100 percent, Ajax is ready for next weekend's close-up, chief of course Pat Callahan said. Such was not the case last week, when the lower stretches of the mountain were dirt.
"What a huge change over the last three days," said Callahan, an Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club alpine coach who spent last weekend at Loveland Ski Area.
"We went from brown patches to some snow piles that are 25 feet high. The one on Strawpile is just massive. The snowmaking crew did a remarkable job. Now we just have to focus on little holes here and there."
Added Hancock, "We still need to make more snow at the lift to get people on and off and between Lift 1A and the top of the course, but our first priority is getting snow within the race arena itself. We figure we have enough to hold the race right now.
"The combination of good snow, long periods of low temps, low humidity and low wind were all helpful. That way, the snow you make lands where you want it to. We were very fortunate."
Now the final push begins in earnest. Friday, crews will finish setting up A-netting, focusing specifically on the areas around Berlin Wall and Corkscrew, and then groom and pack down the race surface.
After Saturday's training session, "We'll tear everything up," Callahan said.
"We'll open up the snow to the air, then Monday go out with the snowmaking hoses and water for six or seven hours, inching our way down the course," he added.
Tuesday, AVSC coaches will help install 240 rolls of B-netting, Callahan said. Wednesday and Thursday will be spent "buttoning things up" - grooming the surface one last time and positioning television cameras, among other tasks - before skiers hit the hill for Friday's freeski and Saturday and Sunday's races.
NorAm races will follow Monday and Tuesday.
"I wouldn't say we're ahead of schedule, but we're on schedule," Callahan said. "We would've loved to have three or four more days, but we've seen worse than this, and everybody is still in a good mood. We're not scrambling, ... but the schedule is tight. If something goes wrong, it would've been nice to have a day or two as a buffer, but the forecast looks awesome for working - warm days and cool nights.
"The snow is good, and we're ready to roll. The guns are being pulled off the course and being focused on Spar Gulch for the rest of town."