The icy truth about Olympic snowmaking

Nearly every crystal at the Beijing Games will come out of a machine. Then the hard part begins.

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This year, the Olympic venues in China will be missing something: natural snow.

Many Winter Games, including the past three in PyeongChang, Sochi and Vancouver, have made heavy use of snowmakers for this nonnegotiable necessity. In Beijing, machines are churning out every inch of the white stuff for the 66 medal events that require it.

But spreading snow onto a world-class ski run is not like slathering cream cheese onto a bagel. It requires precision in every step, from the air-and-water mixture in the snow guns to the last team of groomers on skis who smooth away remaining imperfections before showtime.

Three key ingredients for snow

The typical cold, dry February weather in the mountains near Beijing provides little natural snow but creates excellent conditions for producing and sustaining machine-made snow. It is made from compressed air and water without the chemical additives often needed in warmer, wetter areas, said Michael Mayr, a representative from Italy-based TechnoAlpin, which won the roughly $22 million contract to provide the snow-making system at this year’s Olympics.

1. Water

China estimated in 2019 that snow-making for the Games would require about 49 million gallons of water in an area where environmentalists have sounded alarms about water scarcity.

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A network of pipes and pumping stations was built to link reservoirs to the new Alpine skiing venue at Yanqing, which rarely gets more than a dusting of natural snow. Covering an area of 200 feet by 200 feet with six inches of snow requires more than 74,600 gallons of water.

2. Air

Snow guns use compressed air to break water into tiny droplets. Different air-to-water ratios produce different types of snow, from wispy (75 percent air) to waterlogged (50 percent air). Fan-style guns have onboard weather stations that adjust settings automatically to the percentage the snowmakers need.

Compressed air is pumped into fan guns

That breaks the water into tiny droplets

Air

Water

Olympic snowmakers are using 272 high-capacity, propeller-driven fan guns (some mobile and some mounted on towers)…

…and 82 lance-style guns that put out much less snow but are easier to use on narrow slopes.

5.75 ft

38 ft

Max.

height

Compressed air is pumped into fan guns

That breaks the water into tiny droplets

Air

Water

Olympic snowmakers are using 272 high-capacity, propeller-driven fan guns (some mobile and some mounted on towers)…

5.75 ft

…and 82 lance-style guns that put out much less snow but are easier to use on narrow slopes.

38 ft

Max.

height

Compressed air is pumped into fan guns

That breaks the water into tiny droplets

Air

Water

Olympic snowmakers are using 272 high-capacity, propeller-driven fan guns (some mobile and some mounted on towers)…

5.75 ft

…and 82 lance-style guns that put out much less snow but are easier to use on narrow slopes.

38 ft

Max.

height

3. Cold

The ideal conditions for snow-making are a temperature below 15 degrees Fahrenheit and relative humidity below 25 percent.

In those conditions droplets freeze as they fall …

… and create a pile of snow.

In those conditions droplets freeze as they fall …

… and create a pile of snow.

In those conditions droplets freeze as they fall …

… and create a pile of snow.

Unlike the delicate hexagons created when natural water droplets fall from the clouds, machine-made snowflakes only have time to form crystal blobs before they hit the ground. They may be denser and are not as pretty to look at, but by the time flakes of either kind — or a mix of both kinds — are processed into an Olympic course, there is little difference.

Natural

machine-made

The ideal conditions for snowmaking are 15 degrees F and 25 percent humidity, pretty close to the average February conditions in the mountains near Beijing.

Climate change is affecting two critical ingredients of snowmaking: cold temperatures and water

‘Perfect’ is under the ski of the beholder

Professional snowmakers say there is no ideal Olympic snow, just ideal snow for a particular sport.

Cross-country’s

solid snow.

Freestyle

moguls.

Alpine ice.

Photos by Lisa Leutner/AP, Lisi Niesner/Reuters and Giovanni Mari Pizzato/AP.

Cross-country’s

solid snow.

Freestyle moguls.

Alpine ice.

Photos by Lisa Leutner/AP, Lisi Niesner/Reuters and Giovanni Mari Pizzato/AP.

Cross-country’s solid snow.

Freestyle moguls.

Alpine ice.

Photos by Lisa Leutner/AP, Lisi Niesner/Reuters and Giovanni Mari Pizzato/AP.

Cross-country solid snow.

Freestyle moguls.

Alpine ice.

Photos by Lisa Leutner/AP, Lisi Niesner/Reuters and Giovanni Mari Pizzato/AP.

Cross-country skiers want a solid, level base with a packed-powder surface that provides better grip for skating and climbing — although top skiers are used to a little ice as well, said Bill Pierce, venue manager at Soldier Hollow Nordic Center in Utah, which hosted the 2022 U.S. championships.

Freestyle skiers and snowboarders prefer firm runs and fairly soft landing areas, Mayr, the TechnoAlpin rep, said. Mogul skiers like powdery bumps with fast lines between them, according to Mike Solimano, president and general manager of Killington Resort in Vermont, which hosts freestyle competitions and World Cup Alpine races.

And Alpine skiers want a vertical ribbon of ice, Solimano said, the opposite of the light, fluffy stuff snowmakers create most of the year for recreational skiers.

Snowmaking is mostly concentrated in two mountain areas and the big air venue in Beijing.

Detail

CHINA

85 miles

from Beijing

Zhangjiakou

Freestyle skiing, snowboarding, cross-country and ski jumping

48 miles

from Beijing

Yanqing

Alpine skiing events

HEBEI

BEIJING

Beijing

Big air venue

25 miles

Snowmaking is mostly concentrated in two mountain areas and the big air venue in Beijing.

Detail

85 miles

from Beijing

CHINA

Zhangjiakou

Most of snow sports, such as freestyle skiing, snowboarding, cross-country and ski jumping

48 miles

from Beijing

Yanqing

Alpine skiing events

HEBEI

BEIJING

Beijing

Big air venue

25 miles

Snowmaking is mostly concentrated in two mountain areas and the big air venue in Beijing.

Zhangjiakou

Most of snow sports, such as freestyle skiing, snowboarding, cross-country and ski jumping

85 miles from Beijing

Detail

CHINA

Yanqing

Alpine skiing events

48 miles from Beijing

HEBEI

BEIJING

Beijing

Big air venue

25 miles

Tianjin

Snowmaking is mostly concentrated in two mountain areas and the big air venue in Beijing.

Detail

CHINA

85 miles from Beijing

Zhangjiakou

Most of snow sports, such as freestyle skiing, snowboarding, cross-country and ski jumping

Yanqing

Alpine skiing events

48 miles from Beijing

HEBEI

BEIJING

Beijing

Big air venue

25 miles

Tianjin

The downhill course at Yanqing is named Rock, and that’s what the snow will probably feel like.

Top downhill skiers often reach speeds of more than 80 mph as they careen down a narrow ribbon of ice. It is not for the faint of heart or leg, said ski historian Seth Masia, of the International Skiing History Association.

“If you’re not on skis that were specially handmade for racing and tuned by a World Cup-level ski tuner, you wind up in a 40 mile-an-hour side slip,” Masia said. “It’s really hard to drive an edge into that stuff. It’s not a fun experience if you don’t have the right gear and can’t leg press 500 pounds.”

Legendary course designer Bernhard Russi described his Yanqing creation as “very demanding” and “a much steeper downhill than everybody was thinking” in a recent Reuters interview.

Until practice runs begin on Thursday, we’ll have to take his word for it, because no world-class athletes have skied the course. Pre-Olympic races that typically occur at a new venue were canceled because of the pandemic, so only a few lower-level Chinese athletes have competed on a significantly shortened version.

Masia said that while the world’s best skiers will adapt, no previous Olympic course has been as unfamiliar to athletes as this one or has had a similar pattern of steep and flat terrain.

Yanqing Alpine area

Downhill

7,150 ft

Training

courses

Slalom

Team event

4,200 ft

Rock course

Starts

7,150 ft

Downhill

men

The men’s downhill drops almost 3,000 feet.

Downhill

women

Super-G

men

Super-G

women

68%

It has five jumps and two very steep sections with a maximum pitch of 68 percent. The women’s start is 500 feet lower.

Distance

1.83 miles

4,200 ft

Yanqing Alpine area

Downhill

7,150 ft

Training

courses

Slalom

Team event

4,200 ft

Rock course

Starts

7,150 ft

Downhill men

The men’s downhill drops almost 3,000 feet.

Downhill women

Super-G men

68%

Super-G women

It has five jumps and two very steep sections with a maximum pitch of 68 percent. The women’s start is 500 feet lower.

Distance

1.83 miles

4,200 ft

Yanqing Alpine area

Downhill

7,150 ft

Training

courses

Slalom

Team event

4,200 ft

Rock course

Starts

7,150 ft

Downhill men

Downhill women

Super-G men

68%

Super-G women

The men’s downhill drops almost 3,000 feet. It has five jumps and two very steep sections with a maximum pitch of 68 percent.

The women’s start is 500 feet lower.

Distance

1.83 miles

4,200 ft

“Looks like the course starts very steep, then flat, then quite steep but not as steep, then runout to finish is very flat,” he said. “So racers have to have a really strong technical turn to negotiate the gates on some very steep pitches, but they also have to carry their speed across these long, flat sections. That usually favors the bigger guys who come into the flats with more momentum.”

Masia also wonders how the skiers will fare coming off the course’s five jumps in a region known for blustery wind with few forgiving snowbanks outside the fences. “If there’s a high crosswind, it could just blow you right off the course,” he said. “And there really isn’t a lot of snow to land on.”

Creating a ‘bulletproof’ downhill

Industry lingo for the ideal Alpine competition surface is “bulletproof,” meaning it is as hard as a hockey rink.

Russi said the course that most resembles the Rock course might be the famously challenging Birds of Prey at Beaver Creek Resort in Colorado, which he also designed.

Here’s how the surface of that course is created, according to Gary Shimanowitz, who as vice president of mountain operations helps oversee the team that prepares Birds of Prey for World Cup races.

1. Make wet snow and spread it out.

Snow guns are set to churn out snow that is half water. “You can make a snowball out of the snow we make and then squeeze it, and water will come out,” Shimanowitz said.

Using plow blades on snowcats, groomers spread the snow along the course.

Snow gun

Using plow blades on snowcats, groomers spread the snow along the course.

Snow gun

Using plow blades on snowcats, groomers spread the snow along the course.

Snow gun

In steep areas, specialized groomers called winch cats move up and down slopes using winches tethered by steel cables to anchors in the ground.

Winch cat

WINCHES

Winch cat

WINCHES

Winch cat

WINCHES

2. 'Track pack’ it.

Snowcats run over the newly spread snow to tamp it down. Olympic snowmakers plan to have a roughly 3-foot-deep base on all courses.

3. Just add water.

Groomers will let the snow rest for 24 hours and spray the surface with water. (Another method is injecting water into the snow; Solimano does that with Killington’s slalom course.) At this point, the snow is the consistency of a Slurpee.

Snow gun

Water

Hose

Inject water

into the snow

Snow gun

Water

Hose

Inject water

into the snow

Water

Snow gun

Hose

Inject water

into the snow

4. Mix it up.

In a process called “slush-tilling,” grooming machines use blades to till the snow to break up chunks and evenly distribute it in an even, slushy layer.

Blades

Blades

Blades

5. Let it freeze.

“If you can get to that nice, hard, consistent surface — that’s what the racers are looking for,” Shimanowitz said. Soft spots could slow them down and create hazards. “You don’t want soft spots, hard spots, soft spots, hard spots — you want it to be hard and consistent, the same all the way from the top to the bottom.”

6. Smooth it out.

Finally, teams of skiers called “slip crews” or “side slippers” slide down the frozen course like human Zambonis, their edges smoothing remaining ripples and make the surface as hard and glassy as possible. The more you “slip” a course, the firmer it becomes. Slip crews also quickly smooth ruts during races, so look for them standing ready along the course.

side

slippers

side

slippers

side

slippers

The goal is for the surface to be the same for the last skier of the day as it is for the first.

Olympics could highlight China’s innovative, troubling efforts to control the weather

After all the processing, there’s not much difference between natural and machine-made snow for Olympians.

“While they are formed differently,” said Soldier Hollow’s Pierce, “they both end up to be the same thing in the end.”

Additional sources for this story: SMI Snowmakers, U.S. Ski and Snowboard, Danfoss, Beijing 2022. Visual reference for snow equipment from TechnoAlpin and Killington Resort. Downhill maps reference from Beijing 2022 organizers and U.S. Ski and Snowboard.

Ian Livingston contributed to this report.

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