RUMFORD, Maine — The old adage “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute,” was overheard many times at Black Mountain on both Sunday and Monday, but waiting around all morning didn’t change the fact that Sunday night’s rain put a serious damper on U.S. Nationals.
News broke early Monday morning that an overnight downpour had soaked the artificial snow at Black Mountain and forced race organizers to postpone the scheduled freestyle sprint indefinitely. From 6:00 am to mid-day, coaches, athletes and wax techs waited around in uncertainty while the race jury discussed their options, inspected the entire sprint course, and reconvened to finalize the revised schedule.
At noon, the second meeting broke and program speculation was put to rest. Monday’s skate sprint was moved to Tuesday, Wednesday’s 10/15 k freestyle shifted to Thursday, and the second half of this week’s races — a 20/30 k classic and a classic sprint — remained on the schedule for Friday and Sunday as originally planned.
The snow in the stadium was a sheet of ice on Monday morning, and remained slick through stretches of both sun and flurries into the afternoon when temperatures approached freezing. Further from the stadium, where snow hadn’t been spread as deeply, patches of dirt were visible.
According to Chief of Competition Carlie Casey, the trail crew begin making repairs Monday evening after the weather was comfortably below 32 degrees F and the snow had had all day to dry out. The plan was to use snow from what was already stockpiled to spread over thin spots on the 1.4 and 1.6 k sprint courses, and turn on the snow guns to make the snow still needed to cover the distance course.
“It’ll get icy [at night], but once it gets hard it’ll be groomed over,” said Casey just after the final jury meeting dispersed at midday on Monday. “We just need to let it dry out as much as we can.”
Andy Shepard, President and CEO of Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC), which owns Black Mountain, said that it was the high temperatures and moisture in the snow, not the amount of snow available, that ultimately pushed the decision to postpone Monday’s sprint. He attended the later jury meeting that made the final decision. Manmade snow in particular soaks up water, and if a Pisten Bully were let loose on the course in such a state, the machine leaves behind a sheet of boilerplate ice.
“Today wasn’t an issue of snow; we had plenty of snow,” Shepard said in a phone interview on Monday evening. “It would have been possible to hold the race today probably, but I think the race organizers made the right call given the moisture that was on the course and the difficulty with grooming trails with that much wetness in the snow.”
The snow that was being saved for the distance course would have to be remade.
Though the announcement of the rearranged race schedule let coaches know how to begin rewaxing their athletes’ skis, questions still remained about the level of priority given to U.S. Nationals over regular alpine operations at Black Mountain. The chairlift on the northernmost hill at was still running on Monday, and the boarders and skiers carving turns all day stood in stark contrast to the closed sprint course.
Shepard said alpine obligations had not detracted from preparations for nationals. He said 100 percent of the venue’s snowmaking efforts had been focused on the nordic event up until they thought they had made enough snow to last them the week.
None of the weather reports predicted the amount of rain Rumford ended up getting on Sunday night, and instead Black Mountain lost a lot of the saved snow they’d been counting on.
“I know there’s been frustration out there,” Shepard said. “I’ve heard people say we’re trying to get guns off the nordic trails to make money for the alpine area.”
That notion, he continued, was inaccurate. “We got to the point where we thought we had enough snow to do the event, and then we moved our snow guns back to the alpine hill.”
He estimated that MWSC had put $85,000 to $100,000 into preparations for nationals before Sunday’s rain hit.
“We went into [hosting nationals] knowing that if it came down to choosing between nordic and alpine, we’d prioritize nordic,” Shepard said. “It has not been the hand-wringing, controversial challenge that people might think it has been.
“After last year’s event, we needed to do everything we could so that if we found ourselves in this situation again…we had everything we needed to make snow.”
Competition resumes on Tuesday at 9 a.m. U.S. Ski Team Development Coach Bryan Fish, who is observing the week’s racing in order to select the J1 Scando, Wold Junior, and U23 Championship teams, thought the hairy weather conditions and the need for athletes to adjust to them was good preparation for racing in Europe.
“It’s something that we need to adapt to as athletes and coaches,” he said.
Fish also emphasized that, though the conditions were not ideal, at least everyone had the same challenge.
“Is it fair? I think so. Everyone has the same shot, the same opportunity to get on the snow, albeit limited,” he said.
As the course was closed Monday to skiers, few athletes made the trek to the venue and instead went running in preparation for competition to resume.
The athletes, and the development of skiing in the state of Maine, is ultimately the reason Maine Winter Sports Center decides to host Nationals, Shepard said. As a nonprofit organization, MWSC does not aim to make money off the event and given the amount of snowmaking the past two years has required, they don’t break even at the end of the week.
“We don’t go into this because it will make or lose money, we do it because it’s important in the U.S calendar and Black Mountain has historically been a top nordic venue in the country,” Shepard said. “It’s important to the community, to our organization, and [we] want to continue to be a part of national racing.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.