How Vancouver can hold a Winter Olympics with no snow

Cypress Mountain, the venue for the snowboarding and freestyle skiing events, has had to truck and fly in enough snow to fill 20 Big Bens. But organizers say it's now ready to go.

By , Staff writer

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    Work crews continue to move snow as heavy rain falls prior to the start of the men's and women's mogul training for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games at Cypress Mountain in Vancouver, British Columbia Thursday.
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These days, a perpetual rainy mist hangs over Cypress Mountain. For those trying to ensure that the venue will be ready to hold Olympic events starting tomorrow, it could just as easily be the smoke of battle.

During the past month, the Vancouver Organizing Committee and the weather have been at war, and nowhere more so than on this suburban mountain that is set to host the snowboard and freestyle skiing events.

After a historically warm January, the mountainside is mottled with the earthen spots of a receding winter, forcing organizers to import snow from distant peaks and passes by truck and helicopter simply to have enough to hold a competition.

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On the eve of the Olympics, the big story in Vancouver is still the weather, with fog potentially wreaking havoc on the Olympic schedule throughout the weekend.

But what organizers can control, they have – including enough reserve snow piled at the base of Cypress’s Black Mountain and covered in tarps to make sure the venue can survive even if not a single flake of snow falls for the entire Olympics.

“The course is fine,” says former Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley, who surveyed the moguls run Thursday. “All this about the course sliding off the hill and there being no competition has been a bit hysterical.”

While less than ideal, “these types of conditions are nothing new to these competitors,” Moseley says amid a squall of driving sort-of snow – somewhere between wet snow and soupy sleet. Such conditions, he says, “won’t affect the results.”

In many ways, the causes for Moseley’s confidence can be traced back to a single e-mail sent on Jan. 7. Despite a perfect start to the winter, with six feet of snow blanketing Cypress, the weather had turned by the new year. By Jan. 7, with the weather only getting milder, Vancouver organizers sent word to their Cypress team: It was time for Plan B.

The e-mail set in motion a massive logistical effort that allows Stephen Bourdeau, spokesman for the Cypress venue to say confidently that “the fields of play are ready” – even amid Friday’s slush-storm.

It is an impressive achievement. Cypress looks less like a winter wonderland than a snowscape under siege. The snow is bruised brown by the struggle to survive, and everywhere the earth gurgles as the snow pack liquefies into rivulets of running water. Drops of water freckle signs and fence posts as though the venue itself were perspiring with the effort to remain snowbound.

Since Dec. 7, the race to make Cypress ready has involved moving 57 tons of straw and enough snow to fill Big Ben 20 times, the fruit of more than 300 helicopter trips and 350 truckloads. The last truckload, bringing fresh snow from an inland mountain pass, was scheduled to arrive Friday night, Mr. Bourdeau says.

The reviews from athletes have so far been mostly favorable. "The course is in beautiful shape," said 2002 Olympic moguls silver medalist Shannon Bahrke after a training run Tuesday. "As soon as it gets a little more skier traffic, it's going to be perfect."

Per Spett of Sweden agreed Thursday. After several days on the course, “now we’re used to the conditions,” he says.

The greater concern going forward – both here and in Whistler – are weather delays. No amount of preparation can do anything about fog, wind, heavy snow, or rain – conditions that could cause postponements.

The rain games?

The forecast is not promising, calling for more of the rain and fog that has socked Cypress since the middle of the week.

At its last press conference before the opening ceremonies, the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) spent much of the time talking about contingencies if skiing events are postponed. Asked if she was being alarmist, Cathy Priestner Allinger, executive vice president of sport and games operations said she was being prudent.

One Canadian journalist at the event fretted that the Olympics might be remembered as “the Rain Games.”

To be sure, Vancouver has faced its challenges. Weather forecasters told the committee that events at Cypress would be imperiled only during a 1-in-100 winter.

“We got a 1-in-100 winter,” said VANOC Chief Executive John Furlong.

It was the warmest January in Vancouver history.

In December, however, it looked as if VANOC might face the opposite problem: too much snow. One Cypress official noted that, in 1999, the base was 40 feet. In some places the snow was so deep that it covered the chair lifts and needed to be scooped away to allow them to operate.

Now, that would seem a far more suitable challenge for a Winter Olympics. But Cypress’s Bourdeau is confident that no weather-related delays – be they rain or fog – will make the venues permanently unplayable.

“The Olympic Games are 16 days long, and a lot could happen in that time,” he says. “But we have reserves for 2-1/2 weeks.”

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