Let It Snow: Despite Weather Woes, First Two NorAms in the Bag

Gerry FursethDecember 30, 2014
Kris Freeman on his way to winning the 30 k freestyle interval start by more than a minute and a half on Dec. 20 at the Sovereign Lake NorAm in Vernon, B.C. (Photo: Frances Weeks)
Kris Freeman on his way to winning the 30 k freestyle interval start by more than a minute and a half on Dec. 20 at the Sovereign Lake NorAm in Vernon, B.C. (Photo: Frances Weeks)

Canada’s NorAm circuit is what the International Ski Federation (FIS) calls a Continental Cup series, similar to the U.S. SuperTour.  The name NorAm is short for North American, a hold-over from when Canada and the U.S. had a combined race series.  These races are critical to the elite racers, with guaranteed World Cup starts, national-team positions, and trips to Junior/U23 World Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on the line.

Or to put it another way, it would take a major event to cancel a NorAm race — like perhaps a record-breaking storm in a unusually snowless early season.

As organizing committees secured the final details for the first two NorAm weekends, a major storm was expected to bring heavy rain to most of southern British Columbia.

By the end of the four-day storm, a Vancouver suburb had declared a state of emergency, heavy rain at 12-degree Celsius (54 Fahrenheit) had closed numerous ski resorts across B.C. (including Whistler Blackcomb). Seattle set weather records, and 220,000 people were without power in California.

While all this was going on, organizers in La Clusaz, France, canceled their World Cup and later moved it to Davos, Switzerland, a venue which had previously avoided canceling its original race weekend because of a huge snow-moving effort largely funded by a retired alpine skier.

Black Jack Ski Club

The start of the women's 7.5 k classic at the Black Jack NorAm on Dec. 13 in Rossland, B.C. ( Saturday’s 11 k classic individual start at the NorAm opener in Rossland, B.C. (Photo: Fresh Cafe & apres/Facebook)
The start of the women’s 7.5 k classic interval start at the Black Jack NorAm opener on Dec. 13 in Rossland, B.C. (Photo: Fresh Cafe & apres/Facebook)

The first NorAm weekend this year was scheduled for Dec. 13-14, hosted by the Black Jack Ski Club in Rossland, B.C. Outside the province, Black Jack is best known as the club that produced George Grey (top-10 finisher at the 2010 Olympics) and the current home of long-time national team coach Dave Wood.

When low snow, warm weather and predicted rain made the club’s homologated courses unsuitable for skiing, the club decided to move the opening races up to the biathlon trails, more than 200 meters (650 feet) higher in elevation. As the four-day storm progressed, the freezing level was up to 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) in the area, well above the 1400-meter(4,590-foot) elevation of the biathlon trails.

When rain made the sprint loop unskiable two days before the race, the organizing committee didn’t give up. Club members, neighbours and team coaches spent hours shoveling snow onto the course. When another wave of rain destroyed the sprint course overnight, the organizing committee switched to two individual-start classic distance races and volunteers headed out again to shovel more snow onto the distance course.

After four days of rain and a move to a higher venue without electricity or a timing building, the races were held. Generators provided power, live results were available on the internet and the event was generally agreed to be up to the Continental Cup standard.  Some 140 official volunteers plus an unknown number of shovelers made this possible.

“We estimate we did about 130 man-hours of shovelling this week,” Chief of Competition Ian Sibbald wrote in an email.

Unsolicited athlete quotes from the Black Jack NorAm

“The volunteer base is incredible.  That is an astounding number [of volunteers] since only 3,500 people live in Rossland. Given the lack of snow, the conditions were great.” — Kris Freeman (Team Freebird)

“Conditions were good! A few twigs poking through here and there, but tracks were fast and hard. Big thanks to the volunteers and organizing committee for working hard to run these races!” — Michael Somppi (Alberta World Cup Academy/Canadian Development Team)

“Conditions were remarkable, especially considering the challenging weather the Black Jack Ski Club has been dealt. One would hardly know that though skiing the course, unless you look closely and notice all the shoveling marks on the side of the trail.” — Brian Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus)

“Conditions were much better than I expected, the organizers and groomers did an amazing job making the race happen with tough conditions and the tracks today were great!” — Alysson Marshall (AWCA/National Development Team)

“Conditions today were amazing considering the weather … The race organizers and many volunteers from the town have worked hard to get a good track to make these races happen.” — Andrea Dupont (Rocky Mountain Racers)

“The crew at Black Jack did an amazing job on the course, it was close to perfect considering what they had to work with. The tracks were great, I was very impressed.” — Dahria Beatty (AWCA/National U23 Team)

“The course held together exceptionally well, due to the work of the volunteers and the slightly colder weather that appeared day of.” — Jennie Bender (Bridger Ski Foundation)

Callaghan Valley Cross-Country

Callaghan Valley Cross-Country (CVXC), the host of the second NorAm weekend, isn’t so much a ski club as it is a consortium of four clubs based in the Vancouver/Whistler area: Nordic Racers, Whistler Nordics, Hollyburn Jackrabbits, and Spud Valley Nordic. Squamish Nordic contributes, as do a number of other clubs from the province. For higher-level events, volunteers from other clubs commonly join in, either to add expertise to help the host club earn the event, or gain experience and knowledge so their own club can host similar events in the future.

Scheduled the weekend before the holiday break, CVXC was on track with 85 volunteers with two weeks to go. Snow is rarely a problem at Whistler Olympic Park. In 2010, no provision for snow making was made and the Olympics were held on natural snow despite a seven-week block of rain that ended a week before the Olympics started.

With very little snow and the forecast of the storm earlier this month, the organizing committee had to make a decision to commit, cancel or move the NorAm races with 12 days to go. On decision day, 100 millimetres (4 inches) of rain was forecast for the race venue.

At this point, much of the sponsorship money had been spent, hundreds of volunteer hours had been invested, and teams had booked lodging and flights well in advance.

With heavy rain falling at the venue, few people were surprised when organizers announced they were moving the races to Sovereign Lake in Vernon, B.C.

Once the decision was made, the logistical headache began. The new venue is more than 400-kilometers away, which meant the existing volunteers wouldn’t be sleeping at home. Many of the teams had booked flights leaving Vancouver on Sunday night.  With two mountain passes and six-driving hours separating Sovereign from the airport, there wouldn’t be time to hold the planned events on Sunday.  Moving the races to Friday and Saturday solved the travel problem, but made the volunteer issue more difficult.

At this level of competition, there are strict rules about roles and responsibilities. The assistant technical delegate, Sharon Clarke, was no longer eligible, as the new host was her home club. Clarke and the chief of competition, Sherryl Yeager, swapped roles before tackling the rest of the changes.

“Having to change the event at such a late date due to weather is heartbreaking,” Yeager, also the CVXC vice chair, explained in an email. “All the work that went into planning, arranging sponsors, maps, courses, setting up run sheets, the race notice, registration, accommodation, food, the website and more is largely of no use.”

Andrew Pohl of the New Zealand Ski Team crossing the line in 15th in the men's  NorAm 30 k freestyle interval start on Dec. 20 at Sovereign Lake, B.C. (Photo: Frances Weeks)
Andrew Pohl of the New Zealand Ski Team crossing the line in 15th in the men’s NorAm 30 k freestyle interval start on Dec. 20 at Sovereign Lake, B.C. (Photo: Frances Weeks)

Sovereign Lake Nordic Club

Sovereign Lake is a perennial NorAm host, using trails built for a World Cup event in 2005. The trail system is interconnected with Silver Star Mountain Resort, which leaves most visitors a bit confused. In recent years, the division is simple: race at Sovereign, sleep at Silver Star, ski at both.

Sovereign was hosting a CPL race (one level below Continental Cup) when the possibility of moving the NorAm was raised. With 80 volunteers on site, it was easy for the organizers to quickly find out how many might be available for a potential NorAm and make the commitment to offer the venue.

The shift from Saturday/Sunday to Friday/Saturday was essential for the teams, but difficult for the organizers. More of the CVXC volunteers were unable to help and many of the Sovereign volunteers were unable to get a day off work at short notice.

Without a sprint in the first NorAm weekend of racing, Sovereign’s first day became a classic sprint, requiring another rewrite of the race notice. Ultimately, the merged organizing committee was able to get about 100 volunteers over the two days, including some from neighboring clubs.

Several racers generally viewed the event as a typical NorAm, with more comments on the challenges of heavily falling snow than the logistical obstacles of the event move.

While athletes, coaches, families, and race-day volunteers have moved on, the two organizing committees are sorting out how to share the entry fees and sponsorship money to cover their extra expenses.

The Result

After two weekends and four races, more individuals volunteered than raced.  Athletes got crucial early season race time into their legs.  Several athletes have positioned themselves to race in Europe later this season.

Was it all worth it? Dahria Beatty, Raphaël Couturier, Annah Hanthorn, and Philippe Boucher pre-qualified for Junior/U23 World Championships in early February in Almaty, and based on his NorAm results, Patrick Stewart-Jones earned his spot at the World Cup sprint in Otepää, Estonia, from Jan. 17-18.

Gerry Furseth

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