An exclusive look at the exhaustive work behind two world-class race hills in Beaver Creek
In the final days of racing at the FIS 2015 World Alpine Ski Championships, Hans Pum, the sport director for the Austrian Ski Federation, told his national press agency the event should always be held in Colorado.
Claiming five gold medals, the Austrians were decidedly dominant at Vail/Beaver Creek 2015. But Pum’s comment was certainly provoked by more than just the performance of his athletes: he was only one of countless high-ranking stakeholders who showered the local organizers with praise for two superb weeks, both on and off the race hill.
It’s no small task to simultaneously ready a pair full-length World Championship downhill tracks that are 95 percent independent — not to mention the subsequent tech events the following week.
At many venues in Europe, the organizers literally bring in the national military to man rakes and shovels in an effort to refine the track.
In Beaver Creek, the operations team relies on a military-style chain of command among civilians — a group of mostly local racing enthusiasts known as the Talon Crew. The only compensation for these selfless course workers? A new jacket and a front-row seat for the best racing on Earth.
The crew at Beaver Creek — both volunteer and mountain employees — are seriously experienced at preparing a World Cup race hill. They’ve been doing so for almost 20 years in readying for the Birds of Prey World Cup event every fall.
The World Championships, however, presented a new set of challenges, firstly, because organizers needed to produce two separate tracks and, secondly, because heavy snowfall earlier in the winter led to a very different set of circumstances on the mountain. (Typically, in November they’re working with a clean slate.)
“On the men’s trail, we made the snow for World Cup and then from the middle of December to the first week of January we got seven or eight feet of natural snow,” recalls Greg Johnson, the director of Beaver Creek Mountain operations and the men’s chief of race. “There were places where we had 10 to 15 feet of snow on top of the World Cup surface because the snow starts to migrate downhill, especially above Pump House.”
The crew had to strip certain sections of the course, and tore other sections up into wind rows by putting the blade of a snowcat on a 45-degree angle and tearing into the snow every two feet. This enabled them to access the race layer from earlier in the season while mixing in natural snow.
“You would look at the trail from one side to the other, and there were these ridges, two to three feet deep in increments all the way across the trail — each one representing a pass with the cat,” says Johnson. “We left it like that and then we had to re-water. We mixed all that snow, re-groomed it and tracked it up again. Then we re-watered. That took a lot more water than it normally does because of the mixture with natural snow.” (The natural snow is drier.)
The crew also had to restore some of the terrain on the men’s trail, particularly above Pump House. The trail, at that point, was almost flat, so the features and terrain witnessed during the World Championships had to rebuilt into the trail.
“That’s what made the ski racing so phenomenal,” says Johnson. “The biggest difference on the trail [compared to Birds of Prey] was that we were able to build terrain a little bit bigger because of the time of year and because it’s World Championships.”
Typically the men only have one event in speed, at Lake Louise, before they arrive at Beaver Creek, Johnson adds. “The trail is so difficult on its own — we have to be careful in November/December with what we build,” he says. “It can be too much, plain and simple, at that time of the year.”
The project was made all the more challenging when men’s Chief of Course Ron Rupert was involved in a collision up on the hill, sustaining broken bones and a concussion, before the Championships. Rupert was the man who spent the most time on the hill, according to Johnson.
“Ron is huge for our organization,” says Johnson. “He’s been up there building the hill. He’s installed all the A-nets systems. He coordinates all the operations up on the hill for us. So it was a tough blow to have him get hurt right before the World Championships. Luckily, he started feeling better quickly and we kept him involved in the operation.”
Because of his injuries, Rupert wasn’t able to access the hill during the races but managed to coordinate from the base with a jury and operations radios, as well as a video monitor of happenings on the course.
The Talon Crew relied on many proven systems in showing Beaver Creek at its best. Rupert is complemented on the women’s trail by Ellen Galbraith, chief of course for Raptor and the ladies’ races in Beaver Creek. Galbraith is currently the only female chief of course at this elite level and said to be one of the hardest workers in the business.
Rupert and Galbraith essentially sit atop the chain of command and manage course-worker activity. In recent years, responsibilities have been delegated out to roughly 20 section chiefs who are responsible for perfecting their own slice of the track.
Then, on the Talon Crew side of the operation, there’s also a vertical structure of command with coordinators at the highest level. Beneath them are the crew chiefs who oversee a group of 10-or-so “foot soldiers,” a.k.a. Talon Crew volunteers.
“It works great; it’s a system we’ve been working on here for more than 15 years,” says Johnson. “We’re really lucky to have so many dedicated people. There were roughly 2,500 volunteers associated with this event. It would never have happened without all the volunteers — whether they work on the mountain or off the mountain. It’s amazing to see the team spirit and the dedication to the whole event.”
Anyone who has spent much time in Colorado’s High Country during early February knows that the weather during the World Championships was unseasonably warm and clear. On only one occasion throughout the two weeks, the women’s super G, did race officials have to shorten the course due to weather. The men’s super G was pushed back a day because of snow and wind but was ultimately contested full-length under sunny skies. That’s about as good as can be expected.
“My biggest worry going into this thing was the weather,” says Johnson. “It was storms and weather and big huge dumps that can affect us, as it has in the past. The challenge ended up being that it was quite warm and springlike. Every event we ran, it was basically perfect up on the hill; it’s amazing you can do that through a whole program.”
With the warm weather, however, came a new set of concerns, including salting the final pitch for tech events, something Johnson says he never thought they would have to do in February.
“We had some challenges in the afternoon when it got a little bit warmer,” he says. “Temperatures in the valley were in the 50s, which is very abnormal. But I would take that in a heartbeat over what normal February storms can be like.”
The World Championships were several years in the making — years that included the design and construction of an entirely new race trail, Raptor, and the refinement of a nearly a generation of operational experience in executing the world-class event.
“I’m thrilled,” says Johnson. “More than anything, I’m incredibly proud of the job the whole team has done. In our wildest dreams, we never would have thought all of the ski racing in each event would go as well as it did. It came down to some support from Mother Nature, but it’s about the people first. I couldn’t be more proud of every single person who has worked on the mountain and the rest of team. I can’t believe it’s over, but it feels great, mostly because of the phenomenal job everyone has done on the hill.”