While the majority of cross country ski fans last February were plumping pillows on couches, clearing work schedules, and getting Andy Newell’s name embroidered onto a foam finger, Dirk Van Wijk was gearing up to make sure the cross-country race courses met the standards of the best skiers in the world. Van Wijk, as chief of course preparation at Whistler Olympic Park (WOP) during the 2010 Games last February, was the man responsible for battling unpredictable weather to create perfect tracks for both Olympians and Paralympians.
For Van Wijk, getting tapped as the chief of course preparation was just an outgrowth of his longtime interest in trail grooming. “Even as a young kid, skiing around our home in the Gatineau Hills, I liked nice tracks,” said Van Wijk, in a recent interview with FasterSkier. “I would snowshoe pack and then pull a toboggan with two wooden blocks attached under it.”
From his days with snowshoes and toboggans, he moved up to using a Bombardier Alpine snowmobile to set tracks at the Nakkertok Ski Club in Cantley, Quebec, just outside of Ottawa, Ontario. In 2003, the Van Wijk family purchased the property on which Nakkertok’s trails are located, and began to improve the existing trail network. Once the club’s volunteer groomer, Dave Mallory, showed Van Wijk how to operate the Piston Bully, his interest in grooming really took off.
Van Wijk’s summers are usually jam packed with work. He and his wife, Claudia, own and operate two whitewater adventure companies – OWL Rafting and the Madawaska Kanu Centre. However, as those businesses are seasonal, it leaves Van Wijk with a little free time in the winter to pursue other hobbies, such as laying perfect corduroy on the trails at Nakkertok.
At the 2008 Canadian National Championships, held at WOP, Van Wijk (attending as a part of the Nakkertok support team) met with event organizers Mike Edwards and Rob Bernhardt. He was told that the Olympic Organizing Committee was looking to put together a team of 10 to 12 groomers for the cross-country venue.
Subsequently, Van Wijk was selected to help with the International Ski Federation (FIS) cross-country World Cup in January 2009, as well as the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Cup that March. After demonstrating considerable skill, both behind the sticks of a Piston Bully and with logistics, Van Wijk scored his role as chief of course preparation for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
If you were thinking of volunteering to become an Olympic groomer so that you could stand on the finish line watching Petter Northug Jr. battle Devon Kershaw, you might want to reconsider. Van Wijk assured us that it is no cushy posting. The 12 groomers were split into three shifts, and there was always at least one groomer on-site.
However, Van Wijk always wanted to be present while the essential and finishing grooming was being done. For nights without precipitation, grooming started at 4 p.m. directly after the conclusion of the last event day. But for nights with snow, rain, sleet, or any other of Whistler’s manifold forms of precipitation in the forecast, the crew would start around 1 a.m. and finish just before the event began.
In addition, Van Wijk would be on site during the day to help with ongoing trail maintenance, meet with forecasters from Environment Canada to pore over weather projections, discuss the next day’s grooming details with the chief of course and jury, and deal with any mechanical issues.
Before the Olympics, the grooming crew knew that their greatest challenge would be Whistler’s incredibly unpredictable weather. The team included three veteran machine operators who had been employed at the WOP in the years leading up to the Olympics and had experience with the wide range of conditions the mountain could throw at them. But despite their wealth of accumulated wisdom, Van Wijk still said that there were difficult and tense days, especially “the very warm, soft, and wet snow nights.”
To tackle the tricky grooming, the course crew was well outfitted with equipment. In use were five machines in three Piston Bully models: the 100, EDGES Trail, and 400. For smaller jobs, a selection of Skandic snowmobiles were available, with Yellowstone roller attachments.
When conditions deteriorated on those warm, wet, and soft days, Van Wijk broke out his secret weapon: the salting (or, technically, fertilizing) equipment. While the grooming crew had limited experience with salting (it had been used sparingly at Canadian Nationals in 2008, but not the World Cup or IPC World Cup in 2009), Van Wijk said the technique worked “incredibly well!”
While acquiring large amounts of fertilizer is not recommended due to homeland security concerns, for those wanting to try it at home, groomers spread a combination of ammonium nitrate and/or urea on the WOP courses. “Basically, the salt melts a small amount of snow, which then immediately refreezes by the surrounding snow,” Van Wijk said. “It transformed the snow as if the temperature would have dropped from above to below freezing.” The technique made the snow firmer and faster, and the areas of the course that took the most abuse, like tracks and uphills, survived much longer.
If the forecast looked like salt would be necessary, at 7:00 a.m., in conjunction with the race jury, the course crew would test the technique on a patch of the warm-up track. If it worked well, they would fan out onto the course, even if it meant having the tracks closed to athletes for an extra hour before the start of the event.
To spread the salt, the groomers used a few different machines. On the race trails, they used snowmobiles with rear-mounted electric spreaders, and in the stadium they used a ‘Park Monkey’ – essentially a motorized back-pack that spread the salt like a leaf blower.