At the Olympics

Amid all the warm weather, the forecast calls for hauling in snow at the Vancouver Olympics

They're not plowing snow, they're delivering it, at Cypress mountain outside Vancouver, the venue for freestyle skiing and snowboarding. The unseasonably mild winter has left much of the ground barren.
They're not plowing snow, they're delivering it, at Cypress mountain outside Vancouver, the venue for freestyle skiing and snowboarding. The unseasonably mild winter has left much of the ground barren. (Streeter Lecka/getty Images)
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010

CYPRESS MOUNTAIN, B.C. -- While blizzard conditions forced even the plows off the road in Washington, dump trucks on the other side of the continent hauled heaping mounds of snow up winding mountain roads, while twin-engine, heavy-load helicopters dumped large buckets of it every three minutes during daylight hours Wednesday.

In the mad rush to provide sufficient snow for the Olympic freestyle skiing and snowboarding competitions, only Mother Nature sat idly by, refusing to contribute anything more than occasional snow and continuing to provide record warm temperatures.

Record snowfalls may be burying the Washington area this winter, but in Vancouver the warmest January in at least 74 years and a historic lack of snow accumulation have stressed out organizers, baffled meteorologists and forced emergency measures more commonly employed to fight forest fires in the days leading up to Friday's Opening Ceremonies.

"It's been horrendous timing," said David Jones, a meteorologist from Environment Canada, the nation's meteorological service. "All of the forecasters here are feeling terrible about the weather, because we haven't been able to deliver any good news and it keeps getting worse."

U.S. snowboarder Nate Baumgartner said he was shocked to see people playing golf on a bright green course as he flew into Vancouver the other day, and denizens have been about in light jackets or sweatshirts.

Before the massive snow-hauling began last week, the freestyle skiing course that will feature gold medal competition in moguls on Saturday sported little more than grass and mud, giving a double meaning to Vancouver's environmentally conscious effort to put on the greenest Games in history.

Erickson Air-Crane helicopters and snow-carrying trucks worked for the fifth straight day, hauling in more than 5,000 cubic meters of snow. The helicopters scooped up dirty, rain-splattered snow from the other side of Cypress mountain, providing what would function as the snow base. The trucks carried clean, white snow from Allison Pass about three hours away, providing what one spokesman described as the top layer of "beauty snow."

"We've pretty much done everything humanly possible to get conditions where we wanted them," said Tim Gayda, the vice president of sport for the Vancouver organizing committee. "It's been a monumental task."

The last Olympics nearly disrupted by insufficient snow were the 1964 Games in Innsbruck. In that case, the Austrian Army provided the remedy, transporting 20,000 blocks of ice to the bobsled and luge course and 1.4 million cubic feet of snow to the Alpine slopes. At the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, sudden and massive storms forced delays and rescheduling of various Alpine events.

Gayda said organizers had contingency plans for either too much or too little snow, but didn't expect to have to put either into play because snowfall was just right early. But a warm front moved into Vancouver and its surrounding low mountains around New Year's Day and, uncharacteristically, hasn't left.

Warm, wet El Niño winds from Hawaii that occasionally bring unseasonably warm weather around the region are known locally as the "pineapple express," but the effects rarely last more than a few days.

January, however, was the warmest in Vancouver since record-keeping began in 1937, with a mean temperature (the average of the high and low daily) of 45 degrees, more than seven degrees above the norm (38 degrees) as well as five degrees above the previous high.

"We really shattered the all-time record," he said. "It's El Niño, and there's something else that nobody understands at this point. It's El Niño Plus."

The Alpine ski course on the more distant Whistler mountain has been unaffected and, in fact, has had large amounts of snow.

But as the warm conditions dragged on in January, organizers created a "Snow Arrival Department" led by Paul Skelton, the head of mountain operations on Cypress, and then borrowed contingency money left over from other Olympic projects that did not need it.

Gayda said he did not know how much money had been spent on the effort.

Skelton and his team used straw to pad parts of courses such as the landing areas and ski jumps, to reduce the amount of snow required for the effort. They focused the most attention on the moguls course, since that event is contested first. Once moguls is over, organizers will cart some of that snow over to the freestyle aerials course.

The snowboarding side of the mountain is not finished, and organizers have not allowed members of the media to view the course.

U.S. freestyle skiers trained on the reinforced course this week and pronounced the conditions excellent, according to Tom Kelly, director communications for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.

"They've moved snow, and they've brought in snow and you can see how much snow they have on the course," Kelly said. "There's plenty of snow. You can tell from watching the skiers and listening to their edges that it's a good strong course."

Of course, there is more work to do. Rain and above-freezing temperatures are predicted for the coming days.

"We're very positive about how the venue is coming together, given that we're fighting Mother Nature," said Dick Follett, vice president of mountain operations for the organizing committee, "and she's not very forgiving."

However, Wednesday afternoon offered some signs of a thaw in relations, or a freeze as it were. As workers continued to groom the course, they received some help from above: It was snowing.

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