There hasn’t been much that could be categorized as “normal” at the first summer on-snow camps for the U.S. men’s alpine team. Much work has gone down at new sites, notably a small family-run ski area called Ohau which drew high praise from head coach Sasha Rearick for catering to every need of the team.
“Mike and Louise were terrific,” said Rearick, referring to Mike and Louise Neilson, the husband/wife owners of the Ohau Snow Fields and Lake Ohau Lodge.
Ohau is a unique ski area even for New Zealand. It is remote and it is the smallest commercial ski area in the country, according to Mike Neilson. “We have good snow. We lay in the south island MacKenzie Basin, a particularly dry area. Several years ago (2008) we made the decision to develop snowmaking, targeting – in our minds – race training groups. We didn’t chase teams in the first years but continued to develop so we would be suitable. Three years ago Sasha came by on a scouting trip and checked it out.”
It is the lodge – a 72 room series of wings just off Lake Ohau – that separates the resort from others in the area.
“New Zealand is in the middle of the ocean,” said Neilson, to no one’s surprise. “It really is a mountain range that pops out of the sea and rises right up. All of the snowfields have access roads 12 to 15 kilometers long. We are reasonably unique (to have a lodge on site). There is a great view of the main divide, some great lakes. On a clear day it is a sight to behold.”
The other big bonus is Craig Ovenden, who oversees the snowmaking and grooming. He’s a pro’s pro having served at both the Whistler and Sochi Winter Olympics. This is a huge draw because the bulk of Ohau’s annual local traffic comes from advanced powder skiers. That surface and the rock hard surfaces preferred by racers are a major concern to Neilson.
“We get about 16,000 skier visits a season. We’re a long way from the maddening crowd. We have a strong following that are very much powder advanced skiers and here we are preparing a course that is the other end of the market. But Craig will churn it up and turn it back into a recreational surface.”
They have also developed a separated training area so skiing on the hard pack is not a requirement for all visitors.
Still, the moderate slopes of Ohau provided the perfect get back on snow reintroduction for Northern Hemisphere racers coming off a brief vacation. The U.S. team also spent time at Round Hill, a one T-bar hill, and at Cornet Peak, where the pitches are steeper and terrain more challenging.
Snow has been hard to come by throughout the Southern Hemisphere this season. Rearick is already re-packing for a scouting trip to Chile to search out the best conditions for an upcoming speed camp. It was the ability to work the snow and watering that helped make Ohau perfect for the team’s purposes.
Last August, with the focus already on the Sochi Olympics, the camps were carefully managed with plenty of rest built in and a concentration on technical aspects. Rearick estimates the teams have doubled last season’s volume at this early stage.
He said the World Cup team got the best of the weather conditions and the Europa Cup group the worst, missing about four days.
“All of the groups got a lot of volume. We were able to go out and get more volume in gates and get more out of it. We were definitely able to take advantage,” Rearick added, referring to the superb conditions the mountain staff was able to provide.
The head coach was pleased with the transition stage of a coaching staff in some flux.
“I have to say the coaching staff was working really well together, making sure the guys had great training,” he said. “All in all it was a great camp. The athletes put forth tremendous effort. It was good GS and slalom training. The focus now will be with the speed group. We know we will get speed in Chile and at Copper, so we know we’re in a good place.”
He’s now off to scout Chile for some good speed runs and “snow we can control.”
“A special thanks to Ohau. I look forward to doing more with them in the future. They are committed to providing what we need,” Rearick concluded.