Will downhill at Aspen be snowed out? | AspenTimes.com

Will downhill at Aspen be snowed out?

Nate Peterson
The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” The wait for the return of America’s Downhill might not be over.

Race officials said Thursday night ” as heavy snow fell ” that they expect to make a decision early this morning whether the first World Cup downhill on Aspen Mountain in 12 years will go off as scheduled.

The race would be the first World Cup women’s downhill held in the U.S. in a decade and the first on Aspen Mountain since 1988. The World Cup men last ran downhill on Ajax in 1995.

“There’ll be guys up at four in the morning watching and talking to cat drivers up on the hill and seeing what’s up there,” Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle said. “When the sun comes up, we’ll see how much it snowed and if it’s going to keep snowing and what the visibility is like. The organizing committee with the [International Ski Federation] and the U.S. Ski Team will make a decision based on that.”

Three years ago, Aspen Mountain course crews were able to pull of a women’s World Cup slalom despite nearly 2 feet of overnight snow. Knowing that, race organizers opted to hold off on a decision until today when they can better assess all the factors involved.

“I don’t know if there’s a hard number there,” Hanle said, when asked how much snow course crews could feasibly handle and still hold a race. “There’s really not a solid number. You get up in the morning and you see what it looks like. Is the snow wet? Is it easily slipped off? … It’s really a game-time decision.”

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Accumulated snow isn’t the only factor involved. World Cup racers can reach speeds in excess of 70 mph running downhill, and officials won’t hold a race if the visibility isn’t good enough.

The National Weather Service on Thursday night predicted a 90 percent chance of snow through today and tonight and an 80 percent chance of snow through Saturday ” the scheduled day for a super G. On Saturday night and Sunday, there’s only a 40 percent chance of snow. The races are scheduled to conclude Sunday with a slalom.

Just because all that snow is forecasted doesn’t mean it will actually arrive. As much as six inches of snow was forecasted Wednesday night and early Thursday, but only a trace showed up.

“It’s snowing north of us right now, which is not what we thought,” Hanle said. “The storm was coming in from the south, but I’ve heard Vail’s been getting hit pretty hard, Winter Park got hit pretty hard and the Eisenhower Tunnel got hit pretty hard. With these weird bands that slip by, it’s hard to really pin down what it’s going to be. [Today] looks pretty snowy, so we’ll just have to wait and see.”

If today’s race is canceled, that doesn’t mean the downhill couldn’t be held Saturday. Moving the race to Monday ” like race officials did with last Saturday’s men’s super G at Beaver Creek ” isn’t likely, Hanle said.

The female racers currently in Aspen are scheduled to travel to Europe on Monday in time to be ready for a Thursday downhill training run in St. Moritz, France.

“If we can only have two races, everyone wants to have the downhill,” Hanle said. “What that knocks out, we don’t know. If something happens, more than likely you keep the slalom because the slalom girls are all here, and the speed girls are all here. So, the speed girls will all get a race and the technical girls will also get a race.”

In an interview Wednesday, United States Ski and Snowboard Association President Bill Marolt ” an Aspen native ” said the collaborative process of securing a women’s World Cup downhill at Ajax was four years in the making.

With two of the top downhill skiers in the world in Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso, the incentive for holding a downhill on U.S. soil is considerable, Marolt said. Vonn won both Wednesday’s and Thursday’s training runs and is coming off a win at Saturday’s downhill at Lake Louise, Alberta. (See related story, A14.)

Patrick Riml, the head alpine coach of the U.S. women’s team, said that he’d prefer to scrap Saturday’s super G for a downhill if today’s race can’t go off. He quickly pointed out, however, that race officials would rather hold the scheduled super G on Saturday opposed to no race at all if conditions aren’t right for a downhill.

“If the weather forecast is perfect, I think there’s a chance of holding it Saturday,” Riml said. “If the weather is snow and wind and clouds for Saturday, I think [the race director] is going to go with a super G because there’s a higher chance of pulling that off if the weather isn’t great.

“Right now, I’m just assuming we’re going to have a race.”