Whistler's weather generates frustration at Winter Olympics

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 15, 2010; D05

WHISTLER, B.C. -- The weather at the base of the mountain at Whistler Creekside is pleasant enough, though fog obscures the peaks above, and the race courses -- on which, in theory, the men's and women's Alpine skiing events will be held at these Olympics -- are only partially visible.

No, no, wait. Apologies. The weather at the base of the mountain at Whistler Creekside is now completely foggy, the finish area is no longer visible, and the . . .

Sorry. Let's try again. The weather at the base of the mountain at Whistler Creekside is now downright miserable, a steady drizzle that has turned into a cold rain, and pursuing gold seems a far less desirable endeavor than pursuing shelter.

"I hate it," said veteran ski racer Marco Buechel of Liechtenstein, holding out a hand to catch a few drops. "I hate it."

The most important players in this mountain village, as the Olympics try desperately to get truly under way, are not currently the athletes themselves. They are, instead, the team of forecasters, weather mavens, snow experts, course workers and volunteers who are trying to predict what might happen and then prepare the race courses -- on which there have been a total of zero races and one-and-a-half training runs over the past five days -- so they are fit for Olympic competition. Or any competition.

"It's not that it's unpredictable," said Doug Lundquist, a meteorologist for Environment Canada, which provides weather reports for the mountain. "It's that it's changeable. It can just change so quickly from snow to rain and back."

Because there were five days without races built into the Alpine schedule -- and only one, Monday, has been filled -- officials are still convinced they'll get in the entire slate by closing ceremonies Feb. 28. But that doesn't mean the weather hasn't been maddening. Sunday, American Alpine star Lindsey Vonn took to Whistler to test her ailing shin, and in the span of 35 minutes, according to her husband Thomas, "It went from sun to full-on rain to snow with wind blowing back to sun."

"The weather's been a bummer," said Ted Ligety, the 2006 Olympic gold medalist in the combined. "But it's no big deal."

That's not quite true. It's a huge deal for the forecasters entrusted with predicting what will happen -- not just day to day, but hour to hour -- over the span of the 8,000 acres that encompass Whistler and Blackcomb, the two peaks that make up this resort that lies just to the east of the Pacific Ocean. The resort has two staffed weather stations, and they gather data -- temperature, precipitation, wind speed and direction, you name it -- from sensors placed on the peaks, at the tree line, at mid-mountain and in the valleys. The variations over the course of the day can be significant enough that Whistler officials believe they are the only North American resort to offer five weather updates daily -- 6 a.m., 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

"On Whistler, from one side to the other, it can change," said Yvonne Thornton, an assistant avalanche forecaster who has worked here for 23 years and can look out of her office windows on the mountain and see both peaks. "There's so many different aspects to it. It's quite a hulk of a mountain, and there can be a cloud layer that hangs at the peak or a cloud layer that hangs mid-mountain, all kinds of things."

Which is, then, what officials from the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC), as well as from the International Ski Federation (FIS), are dealing with in trying to start the Alpine competition, with the men's downhill now scheduled for Monday. Forget that the recent weather near the top of the mountains -- three days of snow -- has been perfect for recreational powder skiing. That has nothing to do with racing.

Ski racing courses are packed hard, virtual sheets of ice that are actually injected with water so that they'll freeze. The temperatures over the last several days have reached the 40s. Even though that was supposed to change overnight -- temperatures were to drop into the 20s with clear skies -- this is all something less than ideal, and exactly the kind of weather that caused Whistler to lose its annual World Cup stop in the 1990s.

"The Olympic downhill course is [a] perfect Olympic downhill course in itself," said Gunter Hujara, the men's race director. "We have to go along with the weather, and what we try is to get the optimum out of the conditions. If you would ask me what would be the optimum conditions for [an] Olympic downhill course, I would say the equal conditions top to bottom, hard and icy. Maybe we don't get this."

Hujara said the forecasts provided by Environment Canada in conjunction with the mountain have been "very accurate, and what's happening right now is exactly what was predicted." At the time, workers were "slipping" the men's downhill course, smoothing it out into a surface that would be fit for racing.

"The race course looks quite good already now," Hujara said. "What we need now is the clear sky, the cooler temperatures. And like I already promised yesterday, we are still more than convinced that we deliver tomorrow's race, 10:30 [a.m. PST] start."

As he spoke, Hujara stood at the base of a chairlift under a gray sky. Thirty minutes later, he had gone inside, and a hard, cold drizzle fell on the snow at the base of the mountain, where ski racers got off a gondola and headed back to their accommodations, their Olympics yet to start.

"It's almost like a little ski vacation," Ligety said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company