World Cup on course, despite snowy weather | AspenTimes.com

World Cup on course, despite snowy weather

Jon Maletz

Sigi Contreras jackhammers an anchor into the ground under the World Cup spectator stands Tuesday morning. (Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times)

The 35 inches of fresh powder that has blanketed Aspen Mountain in the last week has produced countless smiles, but at least one person is not ecstatic. As snow continued to fall, Jim Hancock, in charge of this weekend’s Aspen Winternational, watched hours of hard work and preparation get buried. Literally.”This is a very large project, and the storm, which we all love for skiing, has really been a battle for us,” Hancock said. “It’s one of those interesting things where you’re begging for snow, and all of a sudden you get 2 1/2 feet. Now it’s in our way.”For World Cup competitors and course specialists, there is such a thing as too much snow. In the constant struggle to prepare a smooth, hard surface to appease the racers who will compete in this weekend’s super G, giant slalom and slalom, workers are scraping excess snow off the course.Deep into the night, the headlights of groomers and snowcats light up much of Ruthie’s Run, moving forward and back in well-rehearsed rhythm. Tuesday night, the machines ran their tillers, mixing snow both on and below the surface in an attempt to heat it up. If all goes well, the cold temperatures, coupled with added moisture, will cause the surface to freeze. “We’re battling to get the surface hard enough to stand up to the pressures the racers put on it,” Hancock said.Others have been busy smoothing out the ridges, and workers wielding shovels and rakes will lend a hand during the final days of preparation.”The progress has been good, and we’re back to where we were [before the storm],” Hancock said. “Weather always does something that is not optimal, and all we can do is react as best as possible.”

With clear skies and cold temperatures in the forecast leading up to Friday’s super G – starting at 11 a.m. – Hancock and his ever-growing crew have expanded their efforts. They have installed five miles of protective netting and strategically placed airbags. Inflatable airbags will protect racers from the television towers that continue to sprout up. The finish area’s towers and grandstand are being anchored. Company banners litter the course perimeter.

The number of laborers, which was 15-20 when the process began, increases every day, Hancock said. Come Friday, more than 400 people – from course workers, volunteers, U.S. Ski Team and International Ski Federation officials, to food service – will be working behind the scenes to help the World Cup’s only U.S. stop for women’s alpine racing go off without a hitch.When all the logistics and planning are finally in place, the course will speak for itself, Hancock said. The starting gates for the giant slalom course have been moved slightly to accommodate the longer super G event, which returns to Aspen after a short hiatus.All three courses are close to the maximum vertical drop World Cup rules allow, Hancock said. Competitors in every discipline will be in for one of the sport’s most difficult challenges.”By most accounts, this is one of the most difficult courses they ski all year. The hill is steep, and there’s a lot of variation,” Hancock said. “That makes for a good race hill. It’s not a smooth boulevard, and there’s a lot of terrain features. The course is always changing and moving, and that’s what you want. The racers want a challenge like that.”

Those excited about the return of the speed event will also benefit from a new course design. The bottom portion of the super G course will be more direct, steep and offer better visibility for racers and for spectators filling the grandstands, Hancock said. Race participants will have their first look at the course at 10 a.m. Thursday, during a one-hour “free ski.” Because World Cup rules don’t allow racers to ski on the course for five days before the event, there will be no gates. Skiers may, however, ski at top speeds and get a feel for the slope. After that session, participants may sideslip the course to devise and fine-tune their race-day strategy. Members of the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club alpine team have been taking turns on the World Cup course as part of their practice routine since Nov. 25, AVSC alpine ability coach Benjamin Black said Monday. The reviews have been positive.”Last week’s snow didn’t help, but it’s in real good shape, and the surface conditions are good,” Black said. “The [kids] were really into it.”

Hancock will continue to monitor the situation. Every morning he skis the course with FIS officials Atle Skaardal, Jan Tischhauser and Hans Pieren, pinpointing the trouble spots. Soft spots where snow has collected will be cleaned out. More fencing will be put in. A longer super G course – almost 600 meters – and higher racer speeds demand that every safety precaution be taken. Hancock said he believes the project is on schedule. He remains cautious, as putting on the race now becomes as much a battle against the clock as the weather. For Hancock, the unexpected and the scrambling only adds to the excitement and overall satisfaction.”There’s a lot of pressure involved, and this is fairly stressful,” he said. “You have to be willing to roll with the punches and be willing to change your mind. It’s all a part of the fun of putting on an event like this.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.com