Lake Louise in sunny Alberta has hosted the Men’s and Women’s FIS World Cup Alpine Ski Races for over 30 years. The men’s races are the last week of November, and the women race the first week of December. Lake Louise is one of the few places in the world that gets enough snow this early to host such a prestigious event.
I am in Lake Louise from Sunday, December 1 through to Sunday, December 8th, 2019 volunteering for the Women’s Races. I have zero experience with ski racing, other than knowing it exists. I thought it would be fun to chronicle my days working there through the eyes of someone brand new to the world of ski racing.
How did I get here?
I’m a volunteer Ski Friend (Ski Host) at Lake Louise, which means I give free guided ski tours of the mountain. This is a very popular program with our guests, but it’s also a great source of volunteers for the the World Cup races. I’m here because my friend and fellow Ski Friend Cam Tran has volunteered with the races for the past seven years, and encouraged me to apply to the Timing Team.
The volunteers for the FIS World Cup races at Lake Louise are called Sled Dogs. Within the Sled Dogs are several teams, like Course Crew, Volunteer Wranglers, Medical and Timing. We have our own logo, and everyone is proud to sport it.
The first thing I notice about the Sled Dogs is the amount of swag. The ‘veterans’ who have volunteered for several years have a wide assortment of World Cup clothing and bags. My two roommates are covered in Sled Dog logos. I don’t have any swag, and wear my personal ski jacket. This broadcasts to everyone that I’m brand new.
Apparently, Thursday is when the new swag is handed out. They want to ensure everyone works at least four days before the goods are handed out. I will wait patiently.
Sunday, December 1, 2019
Cam and I drive up to Lake Louise on Sunday afternoon, check into our respective hotel rooms, and then go find the rest of the team. Everyone is in a festive mood and looking forward to the week ahead.
Accommodations – Lake Louise Inn
The volunteers are well cared for. I am working for room and board, which includes a nice main floor unit at the Lake Louise Inn. I am sharing a room with two other women. Maureen (Mo) is a 30+ veteran who worked the very first World Cup races here at Lake Louise! Mo is working here almost three weeks solid, taking time away from the furniture manufacturing company she owns. She is the heart of the Communications Team, and is here to setting up before the Men’s event starts, and doesn’t go home until after the Women finish. Mo is here for the most time, plus her working hours are longer, so naturally she gets the bedroom.
Giselle is my other roommate, and we share the living room. Giselle is part of the Course Crew, and has a very physically demanding job clearing the snow off the race course. This is 180 degrees different from her job as superior court judge in Ontario. Giselle gets the drop-down Queen murphy bed because frankly, she will need her sleep with all the upcoming snow.
I get the couch that somehow disgorges itself into two single bunk beds. When I first saw the couch, I assumed it would be a pull-out bed, but no matter what I tried, nothing worked. I finally had to ask Cam to come down, and after trial and error, this appeared:
We also have a small kitchenette. We don’t spend much time in the room, so the space is more than adequate. Rooms at the Lake Louise Inn are not cheap, so it’s a big deal to stay here.
I’m super lucky that I’m on the Timing Crew. My buddy Cam has been on this team for a few years, and he put in a good word for me to join Timing. Our Team Lead is Henry, and he runs timing for races all over Canada.
I’m quickly discovering that the Timing Crew is very technical. Some of the volunteers like Jim and Ted are responsible for setting up the entire electrical system for the races. If the race start is moved, then it’s Jim, Ted and Henry who have to quickly build a new start system, get it up into position, and wire it all together. Jim and Ted are also out every morning before the sun comes up to check the wires. They are insuring nothing has been severed since the last race, either by people walking or skiing over wires.
Monday, December 2, 2019
Monday is my first day of “work,” but since no practice races are scheduled, we have a short orientation to the timing guns and equipment today.
Henry wants to ensure we are all familiar with the positions on the race course. The best way to do this is to ski the course. The course is in fantastic shape, which means it is almost pure ice. Well, not ice, but the hardest packed snow you could possibly imagine. And this was done on purpose! I’m all for some nice soft pow, so this is a real shocker.
‘Skiing’ on the race track is very difficult, and not ideal. We side-slip down the slope beside the race track, trying to move excess snow away from the track and onto the sides where the Course Crew can rake and shovel it level.
When we do have to cross the race track, it’s essential that our skis are completely flat (zero edges) as we glide across. We cannot put any edge grooves in the track.
There are two very steep sections of the race course. The first is Tickety Chutes, which had some snow build-up on it, so I was able to side-slip down with no troubles.
The next steep section is called Fall Away. The racers will jump off the top of Fall Away, then land somewhere down slope to pick up as much speed as possible.
I dislike this slope even when it’s groomed because it is so steep. To ski it in perfect race condition… with all mountain skis (not carvers)…. Scary!
My worst nightmare came true. Despite sharpening my edges to a fine point, my skis easily slipped out from under me, and down I went down. Thankfully I didn’t slide down the hill, but it did take three tries to stand up while trying to grip this impossibly steep slope.
I wasn’t the only Fall Away victim. Three others also went down, including my buddy Cam. He slid down the hill and had to yell for the guy in front to move over, otherwise… can you say dominoes?
I have ZERO photos of the race track, because it took all my care and attention to ski it.
Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019
Today is the first practice ski race. Breakfast call was at 7:00 am, so we were up at the hill bright and early. Little did I know that this would be the latest breakfast all week. The snow cats had finished their work, and were parked out front of the Whiskey Jack Lodge.
Once breakfast is over, we headed over to the Communications Centre.
This is where my roommate Mo works. She is responsible for all the radios on the mountain, assigns them to various teams, and ensures they are all working and charged properly. The room next door has three people who monitor the radio calls, and relay important information as needed.
The Comms Centre is also where the Timing Crew stores all their electrical equipment, which means this is where we get ready. Once we are booted up, it’s time to set up our timing guns.
Timing Gun Set-up
Step One – Haul your timing bag into position.
I’m a back-country skier, and have done several long multi-day traverses. This means I’ve skied with a fairly large pack for days on end. So when I was asked to ski the timing pack over to my position on the race track, I thought it would be no problem. Until I saw it.
I have no problem with the weight of the pack – four timing guns, one timing box, a headset and a timing eye trigger. The problem is the bag’s ungainly girth. The pack stuck out so far that if I made a sharp turn, I would slow down, but the pack would keep on going. I had one really good wipe out before I learned that slow and easy was best.
After a few tries, I figured out that if I carried my personal backpack in front of me, it balanced out the weight on the back. It was difficult balancing two packs on the chairlift, but it was so worth it for the ski down.
Step Two – Set up the timing guns.
In addition to the Start and Finish, there are five timing areas on the race track called ‘eyes’. I am the last Eye 5 at Claire’s Corner. There are two to four timing guns at each station.
The guns are attached to a post that is wired to a main circuit board slightly downhill from where I’m located. When not in use, the posts are covered in an orange bag to protect the wires from snow and ice.
Each timing gun is aimed across the race course at another gun. When the racer breaks the beam between the guns, her time is recorded.
Once the four guns are attached to their posts, then the Pros arrive.
Step Three – The Professionals
The Professionals are several guys from Longines Timing company who are responsible for getting the guns ready, and orchestrate the timing during the race. I have Luca from Slovenia showing me how to set up the system. He’s super patient, and explains everything so I can set it up myself tomorrow.
I have four guns – two on each side. One is a “speed trap” that times how long it takes the skier to go from one timing eye to the next – this tells us how fast she is travelling. The second gun is the actual time – how long did it take the skier to hit this mark.
First Practice Race
It keeps snowing and snowing here at Lake Louise. This is awesome for the resort because people watching the races in Europe will see all this snow and book trips here throughout the season. The snow is not ideal for races though. Good visibility is required, and too much snow on the course slows it down. Despite all the snow, Lake Louise and the Sled Dog team manage to get the required practice race in.
During the races, I am ‘tethered’ to my station because I’m wearing a headset and microphone that is a direct link with the professional timing crew in the timing hut below. Another Slovenian named Sasha is on the radio, and his job is to warn me when a racer is approaching my location – Eye Five.
To activate the timing guns, I have a handheld device. I press a button to turn on the timing guns when a skier approaches, and then release the button to turn off the guns after she skis past. This means that the timing guns do not pick up every random skier and course crew member throughout the race.
For my part, I have to pay attention! Easier said than done. The first 20 skiers are tracked the entire race from start to finish by the media cameras. This means long delays between skiers. After a racer goes past I’m on high alert, only to slowly fade away into mind wandering territory. There were at least two times when Sasha’s alerts brought me fully back to the task at hand in the nick of time. I’m happy to report that no racers were missed.
A typical timing session looks like this. I can hear Sasha on the headset acknowledging that the racer has passed Eye Four on the track above me. After a count of around six seconds, I can just see the racer cresting the hill above me. Shortly after, Sasha says into my headset “Attention Eye Five.” This is my cue to get ready. As the racer approaches, I turn on the timing gun and say “Eye Five” to let Sasha know the timing gun is on. As the racer passes my second and final timing gun, I say “Top”. This lets Sasha know the moment she crosses the eye, to ensure the timing gun worked. Sasha then acknowledges that the racer has passed Eye Five.
There were 52 racers today, and I was surprised by how fast it went. This is a live show, and we take four minute commercial breaks after the first 10 and 20 skiers. These breaks go by incredibly fast. I barely had time to put on my big puffy down jacket to keep warm, before scrambling back into position. On the second four minute break, I scarfed down my sandwich.
After the race, Sasha thanks the timers for their work. My teammate Benoit, a French-Canadian now living in Calgary, is on Eye Four. Sasha thanks Benoit and says “you were perfect.” I also get thanked, but apparently I was not perfect.
After the race, I pack up the guns and timing gear. Luca was very enthusiastic when securing the wing nut on the first gun. No matter how hard I reefed, the nut wasn’t coming undone. I called over one of the Race Crew guys, who had to walk uphill a ways to reach me. As luck would have it, the wing nut came loose just as he arrived. Sorry dude!
I did get very lucky today. As I was taking down the second set of guns, one of the Longines Timing guys skied over. Laurent is from the French Alps, and after checking over my pack asked if he could haul it down to the Timing Hut for me. That was an offer I could not refuse.