Crews already sculpting downhill course | AspenTimes.com

Crews already sculpting downhill course

Edward Stoner
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

Beaver Creek snow cat operator and supervisor Britt Bishop blasts through snow Wednesday at the top of the Birds of Prey downhill race course. (Shane Macomber/Vail Daily)

BEAVER CREEK, Colo. ” Britt Bishop drove his snow cat straight toward a long, 8-foot-tall wall of snow.

The blade of his snow cat broke through the snow, opening up the view to what was beyond: a steep drop ” called The Brink ” and a wide view of Beaver Creek Mountain.

Trusting the winch cable to keep him anchored on the sheer slope, Bishop edged out onto the face until his snow cat was tilted downward. The cable was taut behind him.

A big chunk of man-made snow let loose and slid hundreds of feet down the precipitous drop.

Bishop was working on the course for the Birds of Prey, the World Cup downhill event that will take place in early December.

Each year, weeks before the resort even opens, Beaver Creek works as quickly as it can to prepare its course, where world-class skiers can reach speeds of 85 mph. The event will be Nov. 26-Dec. 2.

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From snowmakers to mechanics to volunteers from the community, hundreds of people work each year to get the course ready.

The winch-cat drivers are the ones who sculpt the course out of wet, dense snow, much of it man-made. They try to spread the snow evenly in an 18-inch layer around the race area. They know where the turns will be on the course, and take to care to make sure the snow in those spots is thick good.

“It’s challenging work,” Bishop said. “It’s steep. We need to do it as quickly and safely as possible.”

Bishop has been driving snow cat at Beaver Creek since 1983, and it’s experienced drivers like him that are called upon to help prepare the course. They don’t have a lot of time to prepare the course, especially if temperatures stay warm and don’t allow for a lot of snow making.

On Tuesday night through Wednesday morning, temperatures didn’t drop low enough for long enough to make snow. But over the weekend, they made snow for hours at a time because it was cold.

Bishop, a Huntington Beach, Calif., native who grew up in Vail, started driving cats after he finished college, thinking he would do it for just a season. He’s now one of the most accomplished drivers at the resort, winning Slope Groomer of the Year from Colorado Ski Country in 2005.

“It gives me an opportunity to be creative,” he said.

The winch cable runs from the snow cat to a “pick point,” such as a metal stake, on the side of the trail. The winch cat ” Beaver Creek has five of them ” is used for steep faces, and the Beav’ uses them to groom many of its black-diamond runs during the ski season.

The Birds of Prey course has to be built to exact specifications.

“Just a few inches off can shut down the race,” said Greg Johnson, chief of course for Birds of Prey.