At the World Championships downhill events that started today—the women raced this morning, the men tomorrow—it all comes down to a minute and a half. That's about how long it will take most of the racers to come screaming down more than 8,000 feet of steeps that reach up to a 34-degree gradient.
Who spends the most time preparing for those 90 seconds? Arguably, it's not the athletes, for whom the Championships are just one event—albeit a very important one—in a long season of them.
It's the course crew, the men and women who spend months preparing the runs to meet the standards of the world's best.
To figure out what goes into a downhill like today's, you have to go back. In the women's case, two and a half years back, when Beaver Creek cut the women's Raptor course out of the trees just to the right of Birds of Prey, the men's course. (Birds of Prey had been built for the 1999 event, the last World Championships to be held at Beaver Creek, or in the US at all). Like anything else requiring long-lasting, physical changes to the hill, the resort had to get approval from the US Forest Service; both Beaver Creek and Vail are actually on federal land.
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Getting that permission was probably headache enough. But when it comes to preparing for the downhill, cutting a trail is only the start.
The work starts in August, says Ellen Galbraith, the senior manager for Beaver Creek's race department and the women's chief of course in the Championships. First, a check of all the safety equipment before it's put up on the course: there are about 3.5 miles of A-nets—the 20-foot tall nets that mark off the most hazardous points of the trail, helping ensure that an athlete who tumbles crashes into yielding fencing, and not a tree. Protective padding goes onto signs, chairlift poles, and any other structures an athlete might bang into. (Later, other fencing goes up, too, including, across both Birds of Prey and Raptor, about 15 miles of B-net, which is used on the sides of course for protection, and 10 miles of spec fence, used to keep the crowd where they're supposed to be—well away from the course).
After that, the snowmaking begins. Beaver Creek won't disclose how much snowmaking they actually do, but it's usually three solid weeks of pumping the manmade stuff onto the hill. The goal: 18 inches of snow. Just as manmade, in some sections, is the dirt beneath; it's been pushed into shape to help coax the rolls and jumps that shape the terrain and make both downhills so difficult. This landscaping also requires Forest Service approval.
A week into snowmaking, Galbraith says, the snowcats start rolling. Their job: to move the snow to shape the terrain even more, guided by poles that the course designers have planted on the hill. And these aren't just your usual snowcats. The cowboys of grooming technology, these winch cats go where no other cat can go: on slopes so steep a normal vehicle could topple right off the mountain—which includes the terrain on both Birds of Prey and Raptor. The use of a winch relieves some three-quarters of the machine's weight, Galbraith says, just enough to get the job done.
Once the snow's created and shaped, it still has to be made race-ready. By February, the course is a layer cake of winter storms, with alternating slices of heavy, wet snow and drier, lighter powder. To ensure that the snow is consistent several feet down—that a racer running first won't experience one kind of surface, while one coming thirty runs later experiences another, after a day's warmer temperatures have melted off that top layer, say—one of the key parts of the process is tilling the snow: a snowcat runs over the course with its tiller, "tracking open" (or breaking open) the hill's snow, exposing the deeper layers, watering the tracks, and ploughing them back together.
The snowmaking process took about 20 days in total, Galbraith says. That gave them just five days before the first downhill training runs to do on-course testing.
(Many other downhill courses in the world prepare their hills with a different process: water injection, which involves forcing water one or two feet below the snow's surface. The process ensures that the course will hold up for racer after racer, rain or shine, something especially important to an event where everything from television contracts to tourism dollars might be riding on the event. But it also ensures the course will become a virtual ice rink—every bit as slippery and as dangerous as you might expect. In a sport that relies on getting an edge into the snow for a fast, clean line, having pure ice beneath the ski makes the whole endeavor look much different. As Vail's own Lindsey Vonn said years ago, "it's not ski racing anymore." So Beaver Creek hasn't injected courses in years. Instead, it's all about the watering-and-ploughing process.)
In the days leading up to the race, workers "slipping" the course—short for sideslipping, or skimming down the course on the sides of their skis, pushing snow out of the way—keep new snowfall off the track. When there's snowfall, like there was this week ahead of the downhill, the cats come back in, too.
Galbraith ticks off the staff required for World Championships: 55 race crew members, 23 race patrollers, 12 support staffers that take care of the spec fence, about 15 winch cat drivers, not to mention 400 volunteers that help with shoveling, raking, and transporting protection equipment. "And there are a few teams that help us slip," she adds.
The goal? "We want that course to provide the same opportunity for the first racer as the last racer," she says. "It doesn't matter where you start—we have snow that's going to hold up not only through the day, but through the entire span of the event, whether it snows or is 45 degrees out or not."
Out of today's 37 racers, the winner, Tina Maze, went down the hill 21st, and no one was surprised. Course prep is less an art than it is a science.
Freelance journalist Amanda Ruggeri, a former ski racer, writes for publications including the BBC, The Globe and Mail, and The New York Times. After nearly five years of living (and skiing) in Italy, she now lives in Brooklyn, where she has learned that when it snows, her new neighbors do not share her enthusiasm.