Can Aspen pull off ski races? Warm weather, lack of snow casts some doubt |

Can Aspen pull off ski races? Warm weather, lack of snow casts some doubt

ASPEN, Colo. — A man in shorts and sandals pedaled down Monarch Street last week with his young son in tow. At the post office, two women discussed Thanksgiving plans.

“It doesn’t look like we’ll be skiing much next weekend,” one said with a wry smile.

Warm temperatures and sporadic precipitation have left local slopes green and Aspen Skiing Co. officials red in the face as they prepared for openings on Aspen Mountain and Snowmass. Jim Hancock and other World Cup race organizers, however, are also feeling the pressure.

Comparable conditions here in November of 2001 led to the cancelation and subsequent rerouting of women’s giant slalom and slalom races, said Hancock, Winternational’s chief of race. Now, with World Cup races fast approaching in British Columbia, Alberta, Vail and Aspen, North American race officials have been reduced to gazing toward the sky and crossing their fingers.

“We’re not panicking, but obviously the weather has not been helpful,” Hancock said. “All you have to do is look up at the hill to see that it’s going to be close. I hope winter arrives one of these days.”

Aspen is scheduled to host a women’s downhill – the first here in 19 years – on Dec. 7. But before the world’s fastest women arrive, there is much to be done.

Last Tuesday, Hancock and race crews transported netting to various spots along the downhill course on Ruthie’s Run. Snowmaking, which began Nov. 1, has been restricted to evenings and progress has been slow because temperatures have rarely dipped below freezing.

“What most people don’t understand is that, when temperatures are a little bit below (freezing), you can’t make a lot of snow – it’s a function of how much water freezes before it hits the ground,” Hancock said. “What we’re making is sticking around. We’re not going backwards, but we haven’t been going forward in any great strides.”

The time crunch is nothing new. While Aspen lost its women’s races in 2001, a night of snowmaking salvaged the men’s slalom. Races were also in jeopardy in 1998 until the final hours.

Aspen’s snow control date – when International Ski Federation representatives chart the course’s progress and determine if races are feasible – is Nov. 27. While Aspen doesn’t have to be ready to host a race on that date, Hancock is hoping for substantial progress.

“We’re making progress, but we’re certainly not ready,” Hancock said. “There’s no reason to panic over things we can’t control. We’re doing all the work we’re able to do, but we’ll always need cold temperatures or real snow to have a fighting chance. There’s nothing anybody can do now except hope and pray.”

Lake Louise, Alberta hosted men’s and women’s downhill and super G races, respectively starting last Wednesday, but poor snow conditions have already affected the World Cup calendar. The women’s slalom slated for Levi, Finland, on Saturday was re-routed to Austria.

Last year at this time, FIS officials pondered holding extra races in Aspen and Vail because of sparse snow in Europe. While the scenario has shifted thus far in 2007, Vail Valley Foundation vice president of communications John Dakin insisted Tuesday that the notion of moving the men’s Beaver Creek races, which begin Nov. on Tuesday, has not yet been broached.

Conditions like those in Aspen are holding up preparation for the Birds of Prey downhill, said Dakin, who said the course is 40 percent complete. Beaver Creek and Aspen are clearly scrambling.

“Every day that goes by without the right conditions is making things much more difficult,” Hancock said. “We’ve been here before and been able to hold races and been unable to hold races,” Dakin said. “You can’t count on much of anything except that things will be variable. In my next life, I’m going to come back as a weatherman.”

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