It’s 80 degrees and you have five elite ski races to pull off for hundreds of athletes within a week. Go.
This was the outlook Northern Vermont’s Craftsbury Outdoor Center faced in the week leading up to the start of spring series at the end of March. Such a forecast might have cowed even the most experienced race organizers, but with its new snowmaking system in place, a bit of foresight, luck, and a lot of hard work, Craftsbury managed to pull of SuperTour Finals and Distance Nationals in seemingly impossible conditions. As a result, a general feeling of incredulity permeated the week of spring series. Athletes and coaches expressed unanimous amazement that races were happening at all in such thoroughly non-winter conditions.
We have now undeniably passed into the off-season, but Craftsbury’s feat bears revisiting. At the conclusion of the men’s 50 k awards, we stole away Craftsbury’s Chief of Competition Judy Geer for a few minutes to get a handle on what it took to make spring series happen.
The numbers alone are daunting. It is difficult to parse out what resources were spring-series specific and what was spread out over their entire season, but in the snowmaking department at least, every last bit ended up counting.
From the time Craftsbury started making snow in November to when their water permit ran out on March 15, two million gallons of water from the nearby lake went towards making snow for the trails. Two Eastern Cups, a marathon, numerous transplanted high school races, one collegiate carnival, an ECSC race, and of course the entirety of spring series happened with the help of that artificial snow.
Without further ado, here’s what Geer had to say about the week, mere moments after wrapping up the week of racing.
FasterSkier: At what point did you start saving up the snow used this week?
Judy Geer: We started making snow for Thanksgiving, since we wanted to be open for that. From then on we were making it and stockpiling it. In the middle of the winter there was a huge mountain of snow here in the middle of the field, which actually became this favorite spot for all the kids, and some of the grownups.
FS: What happened to the snow once you made it?
JG: Our plan was, rather than make it a lot of places, to stockpile it and then put it where we ended up needing it. As the event got closer and the forecast looked worse — even before we could really see the forecast — we knew we had to protect a certain minimum course.
And this comes partly from seeing the kids racing in Europe, seeing what happened in Muonio [Finland]: you have to get two, two-and-a-half k to be failsafe in the worst case. Which is what happened, you know, all hell broke loose.
It’s challenging to be disciplined enough to focus on just that short loop [throughout the season], because there’s this other snow around and you really hope you could run your whole 5 k, because it’s a great 5 k. I give [my husband] Dick a lot of credit for this, saying, ‘No, we’ve gotta focus.’ Some of the rest of us were like, ‘Oh but can’t we put a little more out further?’ But no, you’ve got to have that short loop.
And that was what got us through, was the fact that we did that. About three weeks ago was the last cold weather before the heat started coming in, and we saw this window to move snow all night and get another layer on that 2.5 k. Pat [O’Brien] and Dylan [McGuffin], who are racing, were up until 3:00 am getting the snow out.
So that was the last chance we had to put a significant amount of snow on this course. Since then it was taking any chances we had when it was cold for patching. Even on Wednesday, when everyone was at the hill climb, a small crew here put the rest of that pile from the lower field and put that out and tried to widen the climbs.
FS: Did you use it all?
JG: We used every last bit. There’s not really any left. Thank goodness the temperatures got cooler this week so we could make it.
FS: Your water permit also ended right before this week, was that a big issue for you?
JG: We have a permit to make snow from the lake until March 15. There was at least one date after March 15 where it would have been nice to make a little more, but then we still would have had to spread it around. We’re not going to break the permit, but it really wouldn’t have helped us that much anyway. By that time this was holding up, the temperatures were getting colder, and we were pretty sure it was going to be able to happen.
FS: What kind of labor went into moving around all the snow once it was made?
JG: Our whole crew is wonderful, I want thanks to go to the whole gang. And the volunteers; they’ve been coming in all week.
The crew that did most of this work was the same crew who would have been doing a lot more grooming if there’d been more natural snow to groom! Once the races started, we also had help from both Jim Rodrigues and Will O’Brien, who volunteered their time to help move the last bit of snow.
That one last cold weekend, when we saw a cold weather window to be able to drive trucks on the trail, we decided to lay down another 8-12 inches of snow on the minimum course. A team of about six guys took turns over 20 hours straight, using two dump trucks and an excavator to load them. It was a marathon effort.
We’re really lucky to have a crew that, for the most part, are skiers themselves. Some of them are from the [Craftsbury Green Racing Project]. So they know what we’re trying to do and what makes a good course, and they don’t mind getting up in the middle of the night to work on it. We’re really lucky.
FS: You seemed outwardly confident everything would work out, but was there any point when you started to doubt that?
JG: I think it was Thursday, the last day it was 80 degrees. It was just — it was really good that was the last day, because I’m not sure we could have taken another 80-degree day. The next day it was in the 60s, so there was some melting, but it slowed a lot. After that it got to freezing or close to freezing at night.
I mean, there were times when I looked at it and thought we’d get through those SuperTour Finals races, but I really didn’t know if we’d get through the 30/50 k. But we did!
FS: And now you know that a 33-lap 50 k is possible.
JG: Yeah, the challenges of the 30/50 was — well with the shorter mass start we used the figure eight course, which was 2.5 k. That was great, but it was just going to be too complex to run all those laps with everyone figure-eighting. So that brought us back to the 1.5 k, at which point we had to make the decision: are we going to pull lapped people or not? We felt that people had come a long way, paid their money, wanted to race, and so we made the call not to pull people. If we had, there would have been five people left in the race at the end. And that’s not great, so I think that was the right decision.
It was a bit crowded for the guys race because that big pack stayed together for so long, but we got through it. Obviously we’d all rather have run this on our 5 k or longer. But we can do [1.5 k]. It is possible. Hopefully we’ll at least have a 2.5 k some other year.
We’ll be sitting down after this and making notes on what we would do differently next time. I think I’d love to have a 2.5 k course that we could protect that wasn’t a figure eight. I think we’ll look at the configurations and see how that could happen for another year.
FS: Is the plan to bid for more big races?
JG: Yeah, I think we’ll bid for more. It’s a little scary to bid on one at the end of March, but I think the gang has really gotten into it and really enjoyed it. We want to have a world-class venue here.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.