How to build a World Cup course
Carrying no poles but a long, horror-movie-style drill instead, Jim Hancock clicked into his skis and headed up Lift 1A Monday morning, four days from the opening women’s World Cup race on Aspen Mountain.Though Hancock, an Aspen Skiing Co. jack-of-all-trades and chief of race for the Aspen World Cups, liked what he saw of the race course from above on that bluebird day, he was still eager to begin his first start-to-finish inspection on skis. During frequent stops on the white fairway bordered by salt-and-pepper mountainside, he stooped to sink the drill in and check for thin spots. To his delight and, perhaps, surprise, he didn’t find any.Midway up the lift the next time, an official from the U.S. Ski Team called, curious to know the latest report. Just one week earlier, a lack of natural snow and warm temperatures had led to concern whether there would be suitable conditions for racing.
“My objective is to hand over a perfect track,” said Hancock in reply, “and I’m confident we will. It’s really, really solid; one good layer that doesn’t break up anywhere.”As Aspen World Cup-watchers know by now, the task of coating a mountainside with World Cup-caliber snow is a matter of man over Mother Nature, especially in November. In 2001, when two men’s slalom races were salvaged from a total of five planned races, local course-prep crews worked through the 11th hour to make the minor miracle happen. (The crews’ efforts were validated when Croatia’s Ivica Kostelic, wearing bib No. 64, won the first slalom, and American Bode Miller, wearing No. 54, captured his first slalom podium with a second-place finish the next day. To this day, no World Cup racer has ever won after starting as far back in the pack as Kostelic did.)This Thanksgiving Day weekend, as Aspen Mountain hosts women’s alpine World Cup giant slalom and slalom races, Nov. 26-28, man once again won out. Hancock, 53, has been working on the Aspen World Cup crew since 1981. In 1998, the first year Aspen hosted a Thanksgiving weekend World Cup, Hancock, an Aspen Mountain ski instructor and former Snowmass race director, Skico snowmaker and Aspen Powder Tours guide, took over as chief of race.
Hancock and his crews have state-of-the-art equipment, technology and round-the-clock workers at their disposal, but those ingredients go only so far toward solving the early-season World Cup preparation puzzle.”It’s definitely stressful,” said Steve Sewell, Aspen Mountain manager. “You start looking at the calendar flying by, and it’s the middle of November and your race hill isn’t ready. … It makes for sleepless nights. Fortunately, we have guys who know what they’re doing, who’ve been doing it for a long time.”The man-madeStanding near the base of Lift 1A on Monday afternoon, Steve Fischer, the Aspen Mountain trails director in charge of snowmaking and grooming, pointed out that he was treading on “expensive snow.” (Snow made at colder temperatures is cheaper, because you can make more of it with the same manpower.) It’s the work of some 30 snowmakers working split shifts seven days a week during the World Cup push, plus four cat drivers who serve as the snow spreaders.
Said Sewell: “Some nights, to be honest, were terrible for making snow, and we still went on line when it was a real stretch. But because we did that, that’s also why we’re having the races.”This year, as the snow challenges became clear, the Aspen crews focused on efficiency, and how exactly to cover a swath 35 to 40 meters wide – from Ruthie’s Restaurant on Spring Pitch down Summer Road to Strawpile and 5th Avenue and the finish area – with 18 to 20 inches of hard-packed snow. It became an unusually precise task.”That was a big saver this year,” said Fischer, 37, a 15-year Skico veteran. “We measured out the specific course and we gave the snowmakers a target to shoot for, so we weren’t blowing snow we couldn’t use or push around. We saved a lot of snow that way, because if the snow’s too far away, or in the wrong position to start with, then you lose it all by the time you get to the place you want it.”
Additionally, the light-footed winch cat – which is pulled by cables in addition to its own power – proved useful.”Normally, we can do Strawpile without the winch cats, but with the thin snow and the marginal temps, we wanted to make sure we got it exactly where we needed it. … Plus, you don’t spin the tracks; you don’t grind down to the dirt,” said Fischer.At any given time, the course-prep crews are performing a number of different tasks: Spreading snow with snowcats, watering down the course to achieve a uniform, rock-hard surface, using rakes and shovels to compact and sculpt transitions and starts, erecting fences, padding and gates, moving snowguns to strategic locations, and actually side-slipping or skiing the course to help break it in.”It’s really a huge effort on everybody’s part to make it happen,” Fischer said. “I can’t say it’s the cats and snowmaking that make it happen. I know that’s a big part of it, but the race crew does a lot of work to make it happen too. And thankfully we all get along, so that makes it a lot easier,” Fischer added.
The Ulfar standardIn 1981, Hancock was teaching skiing and Ulfar Skaeringsson, a local ski instructor since the 1950s, was running the World Cup crews.”We used to get almost all the labor for the World Cup prep primarily from ski school, when it was really slow in January and we didn’t have winch cats,” said Hancock. “They’d bring us up in the afternoons to boot-pack and all sorts of things.”And Ulfar Skaeringsson ran all the crews on the course, and he was very dedicated to it.”
Several of Hancock’s friends and ski instructor colleagues, including Rhett Armstrong, Jerry Hemminger, Tommy Reynolds and Jack Anderson, were also on Skaeringsson’s course-prep crew. Now, the same guys carry on in key leadership roles.The course crew numbered about 20 last week, and swelled to about 30 or 35 on Monday. About 10 coaches from the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club planned to join in Tuesday. By race time Friday, the crew on the hill will number several hundred, including numerous volunteers and Skico instructors, ski patrollers and skier services employees. “Ulfar still checks in with me, calls me up, asks me what’s going on, ‘How’s it going, Jimmy?’ It’s a big deal to him, and it’s the kind of thing that helps keep the continuity going,” said Hancock. “Well, we all started working for Ulfar and a lot of us have been doing it for almost 25 years now.
“These guys aren’t making a lot of money and a lot of people do it for no money at all. They do it for the right reasons: We like to bring the races here, bring the attention to the town, but it’s also more than that. It’s been a real feeling of friendship and camaraderie for a lot of people up here for a lot of years who work really hard to put on this product – this sort of crazy thing of putting on a ski race.”It’s not like a basketball tournament; you don’t just turn on the lights and open the door,” Hancock continued, laughing. “It’s a fun project. And obviously it’s a big part of our lives. It’s an incredible thing to try and prepare for an event like this. It’s really something to try to take control of an area that big and create a perfect surface. There’s a real sense of team.”On deckFor Fischer and the rest of the snowmakers, the season has only begun. Before finishing snowmaking on the World Cup course Sunday night, the Aspen Mountain snowmakers had already turned their attention to the top of the mountain. (Aspen and Snowmass plan to open Thanksgiving Day with limited lifts and terrain.) That leaves little time for celebration over one early-season victory.
“It’s, like, no rest for the weary,” said Sewell. “A tough start for snowmaking and grooming on Aspen Mountain, so my hat’s off to them. We just hope it gets better.”Said Fischer, “Given the time of the year and the time we have to do it in, when we get the entire course set and the first racer goes through, and we know we did everything we could and everyone’s happy, that’ll be rewarding. As far as the rest of the year goes, seeing that perfect corduroy every day, that’s the most rewarding thing.”Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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