Halfpipe training cut to protect mountain

Updated: February 6, 2010, 8:22 PM ET
Associated Press

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Winter Olympics officials will eliminate two days of halfpipe training as they continue to add snow to Cypress Mountain, site of the freestyle and snowboarding events.

Athletes now will have three days of training instead of five. The men's halfpipe is scheduled for Feb. 17, with the women the following day.

"The main thing is to protect the field of play," said Tim Gayda, vice president for sport for the Vancouver organizing committee. "We definitely want athletes on the course. But we also want to make sure the field of play is the best it can be for the Games."

And that means keeping athletes away as a helicopter dumps a load of snow every three minutes atop parts of Cypress Mountain.

It also might mean using snow hardeners such as fertilizer come competition day -- a "last resort" Gayda said.

"The forecast is looking positive this week, and we'll hopefully see some colder temperatures," he said.

One of the most difficult aspects of getting Cypress ready is building an approximately 500-foot-long halfpipe with 22-foot high walls and decks on each side. Halfpipe builder Chris Gunnarson, whose company made the Winter X Games superpipe in Aspen, Colo., and many others, said some metal and plywood forms can be substituted for snow to shape parts of the halfpipe.

"You can also truck in and helicopter in some snow," he said. "That serves a good purpose until the snow becomes saturated. If it continues to rain, that's a problem."

He said the toughest part of building any halfpipe comes once makers start preparing the vertical surface, "the portion that's ungroomable."

"As you cut it, you use equipment to shape the pipe and when you do it, you're taking snow away, not adding," Gunnarson said. "It's like you're starting with a piece of marble. You're cutting it away. You can't really add to it at that point."

Gunnarson said he feels for the halfpipe team but didn't want to talk specifics about the Cypress project because he didn't know all the details.

Sarah Lewis, secretary-general of the international ski federation, said cutting back the halfpipe training still will give athletes more time on the venue than they would have at a World Cup, which typically features two days of training.

"The situation, the change, it's the same for everybody," she said. "We've seen that rather a lot of the athletes are choosing to come in a little bit later, to train outside the hecticness of the Olympic atmosphere."

Freestyle skiers and snowboarders also have been offered trips up to the host mountain resort of Whistler to keep in shape.

The American halfpipe team received word of the practice changes Saturday. Coach Mike Jankowski said "challenging conditions are a big part of the game for us on a regular basis."

"The snowboarding crew is well prepared to deal with anything that Mother Nature throws our way," he said.

Environment Canada officials say recent warm weather is attributed to El Nino and, to a lesser degree, Pineapple Express weather patterns. Both bring warm weather and rain from the Pacific to the west coast of North America.

Cypress, which is just north of Vancouver, has suffered from the warmest January on record forcing organizers into an extensive contingency plan that's involved bringing into snow from across the province.

Their new hunting ground is about two hours east of Vancouver off the Coquihalla highway, where trucks are now bringing 3,000 cubic meters of snow from Yak Peak.

The venue for snowboarding and freestyle events has been almost bare in recent weeks, with mud at lower levels before contingency plans kicked into high gear in January. Those plans have involved moving tons of hay bales and covering them with natural and manmade snow stockpiled since November at higher elevation.

"It's been a huge effort," Gayda said.

Gayda again insisted the freestyle and snowboarding events will go on as scheduled.

"We are not relocating any of these events," Gayda said Saturday during a news conference. "They are taking place at Cypress. One hundred percent."

This is not the first time a Winter Olympics has faced a lack of snow.

In 1998, Nagano had major concerns about a lack of snow in the months before the games. Heavy snow forced organizers to cancel events and left spectators stranded.

According to the International Olympic Committee, the 1964 Innsbruck Games also faced a lack of snow. The Austrian army rushed to the rescue, carving out 20,000 blocks of ice from the mountainside, which they transported to the luge and bobsled tracks. They also carried 1.4 million cubic feet of snow to the Alpine ski slopes.


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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