Just add water: Aspen Mountain course prep for World Cup races includes watering Copy
March 14, 2017
Signs of the World Cup Finals' arrival are popping up all over the west side of Aspen Mountain, but it's what fans don't see that will make a big difference in next week's races.
As the grandstands grow out of the base of the Shadow Mountain lift and the safety fence lining the course can be seen from town, the course crews have spent months prepping for the return of World Cup racing. Hundreds have been moving, grooming and sliding on the snow along the myriad trails that will make up the downhill run.
"We took a group of FIS professionals on the course today; they are super excited about the way it's coming along," Aspen Skiing Co. director of special events John Rigney said Friday. "You think you're doing a good job but when you get validation from those officials and others it makes you feel pretty good."
Course crews added a different element over the past week: watering. In an effort to take the soft snow and make it race-ready, Pat Callahan and his crew started spraying water on sections of the downhill course.
Until the storm earlier this week, things on the hill were going along well. Callahan, an Aspen native who is the chief of course for the World Cup Finals races, said it was a challenge pushing off the new snow to get back to the hard pack they created by watering.
A clowder of snowcats and a growing legion of course workers spent Monday and Tuesday getting back to the snow they started to water over the weekend.
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Spraying thousands of gallons of water on the top of the snow is a relatively new approach for Aspen after years of injecting water into the snow to get it firmed up. The goal is to get the course hardpack, not icy. Consistent and firm.
The course from the top of Aztec to 5th Avenue and the finish area was sprayed. Callahan and the crews ripped up the snow in big piles, sprayed water and immediately groomed.
"That seems to lock the moisture into the snow," he said. "We've been doing it since 2010 that way and it works really well."
The switch came after the November 2009 women's slalom race, when the old style of injecting the snow with water caused puddling on the course. In turn, the slalom run became incredibly icy. After sliding off the slalom course because of the conditions, American star Lindsey Vonn said it was "essentially like pond ice" and said it was more like ice skating than ski racing.
When crews inject the snow, they push long metal bars into the snow every four inches and add water. The tedious process continues for hours. Callahan says they still have that equipment but don't want to use it.
He said the issue in Aspen that doesn't occur in Europe is the snow is so dry here and there's virtually no humidity.
"What the water does is it percolates to the top then freezes into the pond ice," Callahan said of the old injecting process. "And so now we don't ice it but we do water it to make it hard. Not like metal hard, more like wood. We want to get a ski into it."
The watering started March 4 at the top of Aztec, which is where the course goes from gliding to the drop into town, and continued all the way down to 5th Avenue and the finish area.
So what's the science to determining when the snow is just right?
"We kick it," Callahan said, "and if it's blue snow, then we're good. If it's still white and sugary, we put more water on it."
With a warming trend insight ahead of Wednesday's downhill, Callahan just has a few requests for Mother Nature: warm days, cool nights, and please, no more snow.
"I shouldn't say it out loud," he said, "but no more snow until March 20."