Column: Heavenly snowmaking strained by World Cup
Some snow is noticeably missing around Heavenly’s ski school and at the bottom of World Cup run. Ski instructors are spending their afternoons lazily skiing down Gunbarrel run. A 60-foot-high pile of snow is a distinctive eyesore adjacent to the bumps course.
What the heck is going on at Heavenly Ski Resort?
In a dryer-than-normal-winter in the Sierra, Heavenly is doing all it can to put on the Sprint Freestyle Grand National on Friday through Sunday.
In its World Cup freestyle debut last January, Heavenly had no shortage of snow. In fact, two feet of fresh powder fell on the mogul skiers during an intense competition Alex Wilson won.
But a year later, Heavenly has spent at least $10,000 this season making snow for the aerials, acro and moguls sites as winter storms repeatedly failed to produce more than a couple of inches of snow.
“It’s put more pressure on our snowmaking, and it’s a balancing act on how much effort we put into this as opposed to adding terrain on the mountain,” said Malcolm Tibbetts, Heavenly’s vice president of mountain operations.
With little or no cooperation from Mother Nature, the resort has battled to make the event happen.
While the acro course site requires little preparation, the aerials and moguls venues were around-the-clock jobs that demanded months of planning and teamwork.
A mound of money
Imagine trying to prep a 200-meter-long by 100-foot-wide snow table, including a 60-foot-high jump mound, when there is little or no snow to begin with. Throw in an in-run, landing hill and outrun and you have an overworked snowmaking system, and/or sheets of snow missing on other parts of the mountain.
“On the aerials site, we started our guns all the way back in early December, and started building it with more of an arsenal a couple of weeks ago,” Tibbetts said.
When temperatures rose and prevented the resort from making snow in the week before the event, other measures were taken.
“Fortunately, we made a lot of snow earlier. For five or six days we were essentially borrowing snow on the lower World Cup and Gunbarrel areas,” Tibbetts said. “The long-term goal is to get a permit to change the topography. But without a permit, we’re stuck with a huge pile of snow each year.
“Once you commit yourself to something like this, then you do whatever you can, whether it’s to save the event or to make it as good as you can.”
Now that the snow is in place, you can bet it will last.
“Two years ago, that pile of snow lasted to Aug. 3,” Tibbetts said.
What’s a mogul and how is it formed?
No matter where moguls skiers hail from, they always come away from a competition on Gunbarrel raving about the course. They love the pitch; the close proximity to the base of the mountain and the fan base; and the fluidity of the moguls.
Considering Heavenly needs to move or make 10 to 12 feet of snow to fill in the fall line on one side of the course, the feat of building the legendary Gunbarrel run is more remarkable.
“That’s the price we pay,” Tibbetts said. “We have other slopes on the mountain that have better fall lines, but they’re not right out the back door of the lodge.
“The convenience of having all three events viewable from the parking lot is pretty unique. I don’t know anybody in the business who can do that.”
Construction of the moguls course started with snow cats grooming the course, leaving lumps of snow that are eventually sculpted into bumps of snow called moguls. Then, moguls-course chief Jere Crawford calls on ski instructors to shape the moguls with gradual turns down the mountain.
“You might think we’d want a lot of freestyle skiers out there, but what works better is ski instructors,” Tibbetts said. “We want nice, well-rounded turns down the course … windshield wiper turns. That’s what really develops the course and gives it better rhythm.”
Crawford and a crew of volunteers then sidestep and sideslip the course to give the moguls more definition before opening the run for training.
But any number of problems can crop up, like they did last year and have again this year.
“The amount of snow that fell during the contest last year would have shut down a lot of other contests,” said Tibbetts, recalling the weekend storm that left 2 feet of fresh snow during the moguls competition. “We had 100 ski instructors and volunteers on that course that morning sidestepping out the course. Had we we not done that, we would have lost that course. The moguls wouldn’t have been there.”
This year, rain has wreaked havoc. After snow guns covered most of the course with up to three feet of snow, several days of rain left the snow soft and wet. Consequently, Crawford limited training, preventing the mogul skiers from developing those cavernous ruts that can ruin a course.
“We’ll probably have to put salt or ammonia sulfate on the jumps because they get too wet and the competitors could go right through them,” Crawford said. “And we’ll limit the training somewhat or the bumps get six feet deep. We’ll let them train for a while, then let the course workers slip the course and flatten it out.”
Crawford’s eight-hour work days grew into 11-hour days as the final weeks of preparation began. But he didn’t seem to mind working in a steady rain that left him soaked from head to toe.
“It’s an enormous job, and the World Cup people expect it to be perfect. It has to be perfect to put on a good show and to be safe,” Crawford said. “It’s tough being wet all day and it’s difficult to coerce volunteers to work with us all day for free, but they get the job done. If one of our local kids does well, or even if some other American from the team does well, it makes it worth it.”
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