Seeking Snow: SMS T2 Finds Glide Time in Oberhof, Germany

Ella HallSeptember 22, 2021
Inside the tunnel: Julia Kern focused on the track ahead (Photo: Bill Harmeyer)

With temperatures dropping steadily each day and the first signs of winter visible on distant mountaintops, the mind of a skier inevitably turns towards thoughts of snow. For the professionals this goes one step further: how and when can they get on snow before the season starts? In the US, pre-season snow time is limited. Once the snow disappears on Mount Bachelor, the Eagle Glacier in Alaska is typically the only domestic pre-season skiing available, although this year even this venue was off the table due to renovations.

Internationally, the skiing options are numerous and varied in their scope, distance, and travel feasibility. However, COVID restrictions and rules still play a major part in travel abroad, and the decision of where to go becomes even harder.

Having carefully considered all of these factors, the SMS T2 team took flight at the beginning of September, searching for the goods. Their chosen destination was a ski tunnel in Oberhof, Germany, specifically, the LOTTO Thüringen Skisport-HALLE. Oberhof is located in central Germany and hosted a stage World Cup in 2013 (Jessie Diggins placed 5th in the 3k skate prologue). The Craftsbury Green Racing Project and USA ParaNordic will also be taking advantage of this venue.

Oberhof Germany, site of the LOTTO Thüringen Skisport-HALLE (photo: Google Maps).

This year, SMS T2 is composed of nine skiers, seven of whom made the trip to Germany. Patrick O’Brien, who has now been the team’s head coach for four years, shared his insight on the decision to go to Oberhof.

“Certainly on-snow time was a focal point of the trip for us,” said O’Brien. “Last year with Covid it made for a pretty clear cut decision. We couldn’t leave Vermont or jump on a plane without a lengthy quarantine period upon return, making any major camps or travel difficult to justify in the middle of a worsening and unknown pandemic. It was actually great in some ways because we just trained well and made the most of our fantastic roller skiing, running, and biking that we have out the door in the Green Mountain State. And with less travel we were still able to get out and follow the travel guidelines we had in Vermont and explore some trails and locations closer to home that normally we wouldn’t have time for with lots of camp and travel commitments.

“The one team camp that we did was a three-day mini camp to Green Woodlands across the river in Lyme, NH, which was amazing but gives you an idea of how restricted travel was for us. These measures kept case numbers very low in VT and were the right thing to do at the time… Having our entire team vaccinated and the state of emergency lifted this spring when we hit 80% of VT vaccinated made our options for camps and travel much more open this prep period.”

This year the team was looking to return to a venue with snow for some quality pre-season hours, particularly for those team members who will be racing Period 1 of the World Cup.

“It’s already a long race season for people that leave for the entire year, and going over earlier to a place like Munio or Rovaniemi, might help with the initial transition to snow, but certainly can extract a heavy toll mid season when you are away from family and friends for that much longer,” explained O’Brien. “So getting a focused block of on-snow time late summer/early fall should help make the transition from dryland to on-snow right before Ruka a little easier and faster to keep people with the best energy and fitness for February at the target races.”

Julia Kern, Jessie Diggins, Alayna Sonnesyn and Lina Sutro are stoked to be getting ski time in the tunnel (Photo: Bill Harmeyer).

Another goal of the camp was to simulate a bit of the World Cup travel experience and re-remember what international travel and being away from home is like.

“A very real goal of the camp was to bring our whole team to a new and unique environment, and to collaborate with other nations (the German team),” said O’Brien. “Again, getting used to that sort of time change and environment for a ten-day focused camp makes the travel in the later fall and winter following the World Cup circuit around that much easier and manageable.”

Traditionally, the SMS T2 team, and the US Ski Team, have traveled to New Zealand for several weeks of skiing in late August or early September. The snow farm in New Zealand offers, “midwinter conditions, low altitude, stable weather, gorgeous scenery and amazing people,” said O’Brien. However, New Zealand is still under tight travel restrictions and wasn’t a feasible option this year. Additionally, some of the SMS T2 athletes were hoping to head to Alaska for a camp on Eagle Glacier in mid-July, “when that got scrapped we were caught off guard and scrambled at the last minute to see what alternatives were out there,” explained O’Brien.

“Oftentimes, glacier skiing is super high, involves taking a tram up (Ramsau), the weather can be very variable (to the point you really shouldn’t be skiing), and the snow is pretty slow and rotten.”

Enter the Oberhof tunnel. O’Brien listed the reasons why this ended up being the best fit, “The facility is really impressive, unlike a normal tunnel which often is simply a loop, this one has a variety of different terrain, a large central area for drills and speeds, and two out and back fingers as well so you have some ability to put together different courses for easy skiing or intensity. In 1.7K you have everything from good hills for V1/Striding, steep hills for ski running/jump skate, to a big stadium area where you can have multiple people practicing starts/finishes head to head. Additionally you know the training is stable and high quality. They warm the tunnel on Sunday afternoon by opening the doors to bring it up to freezing, then groom it with one of their two Pisten Bully’s (PB100+400) and close everything up and crank the AC units and close the track until Monday afternoon, at which point its set up and stable at -4C for the rest of the week. By not over-grooming or working the snowpack they preserve its integrity by limiting grooming cycles. For snow that is three years old, it’s in very good condition and means each day you go out to train you know you will have high quality training. You don’t lose a day in a ten-day camp to a weather closure or poor conditions.”

Crucially for the SMS T2 team, the town is just over 200 miles (330 km) north of the airport in Munich, making logistics simpler. Coming from Stratton Vermont, this made travel for the team to Oberhof roughly the same time-wise as getting to Bend, OR, where they typically kick off the training season in May.

“For us, we are three hours from the Boston airport and an overnight flight to Munich, Germany,” said O’Brien, “So while the travel is still substantial, getting to Central Europe for us is a long overnight flight and 3 hours of driving on the front and back ends. A place like Voukatti (FIN) is a much more exhaustive journey with many connections for us coming from the US.”

Compared to New Zealand, entering Europe COVID-wise is relatively straightforward. Since the team is entirely vaccinated, they weren’t required to quarantine upon arrival but did need to fill out paperwork in advance for their whereabouts and, O’Brien added, “we did test our entire group before departure in VT out of an abundance of caution.”

Bill Harmeyer happy to be on snow (Photo: Julia Kern).

Once they were in Germany, they were tested twice again during the camp just for surveillance purposes.

“The rates of COVID in Germany are quite low and there is near universal compliance with masking indoors and straightforward and effective COVID protocols over there,” said O’Brien. “They have different time slots for training in the tunnel and limit the numbers in the tunnel at any one time. It’s a pretty large amount of airspace that is continually cycled over, so while we were entering and exiting the tunnel everyone was required to be masked, but when skiing masks weren’t expected which was great for doing intensity and harder training sessions. Overall while we were cognizant of still being in a pandemic, the fact that our entire group was vaccinated, getting tested, and following existing protocols really made for a safe and comfortable environment to have a training camp”

Furthermore, the team was able to integrate some training sessions with the German ski team who O’Brien said were “absolutely fantastic to work with.” Not only in regards to training but, “ they helped with all sorts of logistics, getting us extra waxing gear, lodging, getting set up at the tunnel, administering Covid tests during our camp, and running combined sessions with their athletes that live locally (Victoria Karl and Antonia Frabel).”

“I cannot say enough how cool it was to collaborate with them during the camp and how open and engaging the sharing of information was,” emphasized O’Brien, “I think that is something that kind of was lost last year (for obvious reasons with COVID). Out of necessity we had to form our ‘pod’ and keep our circle tight with all the testing and possible quarantine that could derail a race weekend. Simply being able to exchange ideas, information, and training with others was a huge benefit for both of our groups.”

Jessie Diggins talks with German coach and former racer, Axel Teichmann (Photo: Ronny Knoll).

For SMS T2 athlete, Ian Torchia, his personal goals for the trip were focused on really “dialing in my on-snow technique from the adaptations I have made from roller skiing this summer, as well as executing some high-quality intensity and speed sessions to zero in on that unique snow feeling.”

Making the most of the trip, the team squeezed in a 45 minute ski the first day they arrived, making for a total of ten-days on-snow.

“The first day was the worst day on snow for me as I was super jet lagged and half asleep,” said Torchia, “other than that, the entire team was vibing with the snow tunnel and I honestly never got sick of the many many loops we skied. There is always something to focus on with your technique that the monotony of the loops doesn’t really take much affect. Getting on snow in the summer was super valuable and I am so grateful for the opportunity.”

Bill Harmeyer (left) and Ian Torchia (right) line up for a sprint start (Photo: Ronny Knoll).

Looking forward, Torchia said “I am super amped for (hopefully) a normal season of racing and for a shot to make the Olympic team. Right now, my roommate Bill Harmeyer is the only other guy in Stratton (along with the girls on the team) and we have been working super well together in training, pushing each other on our weaknesses and dialing in technique. Let the snow fly!”

When the race season begins in a few short months, many SMS T2 members will be heading back to Europe to start the World Cup, while others will stay in the US to race in the Super Tour and other North American competitions. As usual, the World Cup kicks off in Ruka Finland at the end of November where SMS T2 athletes Jessie Diggins, Julia Kern, Katharine Ogden and Ben Ogden will be competing. Alayna Sonnesyn has also been named as an alternate. The US Super Tour circuit starts in Cable, Wisconsin this year with races December 10-12th.

Jessie Diggins kicking up spray during a speed session in the tunnel (Photo: Ronny Knoll).

Ella Hall

Growing up in Washington’s Methow Valley, Ella was immersed in skiing and the ski community from a young age. From early days bundled in the pulk, to learning to ski as soon as she could walk, to junior racing, a few seasons of collegiate racing, and then to coaching, she has experienced the ski world in many forms. Now, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, she finds herself living in France splitting her time between teaching English at a university in Lyon, avidly following ski racing (and now writing about it!) and adventuring in the outdoors as often as possible.

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