This is Part Three of my adventures volunteering for the FIS World Cup Women’s Races held at Lake Louise. I am completely new to the world of ski racing, and everything that goes on behind the scenes to make it all happen. If you missed them, please click for Part One and Part Two.
Friday, December 6th, 2019
It just keeps snowing!!! As a skier, I absolutely LOVE fresh pow. As someone who has to help shovel and rake snow off a race course, well…. Let’s just say that I have NEVER once dreaded a snowfall in my entire life …. until now. As I awoke to yet another big dump of snow, I heaved a big sigh, knowing what was in store for us at the mountain.
Today is the first official race, and I can definitely tell. There is a slight difference in the air as everyone is on higher alert, and a bit more serious.
Breakfast was at 6:00 am again, but my roommates and I were all up before 5:00 am. I was on the chair lift just before sun up to meet up with Pat Man and his course crew at our location – Clair’s Corner. Cheryl is the only woman on this Course Crew location, so I borrowed her shovel this morning. I knew she had been working her butt off all week and deserved a break.
At 9:30, I went down and picked up my Timing backpack, along with my personal backpack that I use as a counter-weight in front of me. Trying to manage these two packs on the lift is a bit of challenge, especially when I have to share the chair with an athlete and her coach. I’d prefer to only ride the chairlift with one other person, and take up two seats for the packs. However, the locals have come to Lake Louise in droves to ski the fresh snow and the line-ups are long. I manage to stack the bags beside me, one on top of the other, and hang on tight.
By the time I got back to my location, the course crew had left to fix some fencing. Only Cheryl remained to clear the snow, which was still coming down in huge fluffy flakes. The two of us shoveled and raked snow for several hours. As soon as we cleared a section, it would be filled back in with fresh snow. It’s like Groundhog Day on the hill!
Finally, the giant snow cat showed up. As a powder hound, I can honestly say I have never been so happy to see a grooming machine in my life! Cheryl and I moved as much snow in front of that thing as we could between passes.
Setting up the timing gun was a bit of a challenge today. I lost one of the wing nuts off my post that secures the gun in place. There were some frantic radio calls to find another one, only to be assured that Luca from Longines Timing would have an extra. He did not.
Not to be deterred, I dug around in the deep snow. Lo and behold! I found the wing nut about 12″ down in the snow.
This video shows just how much snow is coming down. At the start of the video, you can see the plume of snow being thrown off from the manual snowblower.
Another way I can tell that the races are ramping up is by the amount of coaches that are here. Most of them up further up the course at the famed “Coach’s Corner,” but we now have our fair share at Claire’s Corner. It’s interesting to watch how they all get along, despite being in competition.
As I’m learning about ski racing, the top skiers are ranked from best to worst. The top 20 skiers get to race first, and it is assumed that one of them will win the race. Often, the cameras will only film the first 20 racers, and will pack up when they are finished. If the cameras are still rolling for the remaining 20 or 30 racers, they will only film a portion of their run, before moving onto the next skier. This is a shame, because sometimes a late starter surprises everyone.
Friday was the first Women’s Downhill race. The timing was going great, with Sasha on my headset, priming me for each skier. He doesn’t usually comment on the racers. Until today.
As Bib Number 26 was coming down the track, Sasha was wowed by how fast she was going. As she sped past my timing eye, Sasha was even more excited. As the skier sped past the finish line, Sasha announced that she was in first place. No one else caught her that day.
Turns out the skier was none other than Ester Ledicka – the Czeck snowboarder / skier who made history at the 2018 Winter Olympics by winning Gold in both a snowboard and an alpine ski event. Everyone said it was just a fluke that she won the Olympic ski event. Apparently not, as this speed demon just did it again at Lake Louise!
Work Hard, Play Hard
Tonight was another party for the volunteer Sled Dog team, this one sponsored by Spolumbo’s Sausages, a premier deli and perennial favourite in Calgary. The Lake Louise Inn has a giant gazebo, with a roaring fire right in the middle. Two big BBQ grills are also inside.
While the fresh-made sausages were the real treat, I was WAY more interested in the fresh salads! It’s hard to get fresh vegetables and fruit up here, but somehow the Lake Louise Inn managed it. I had three helpings of salad, and a giant plate of fresh fruit. It must have cost a mint, but not getting scurvy is more important.
My hands gets frozen at least once a day working on the timing crew. When I set up the guns, I have to take off the protective bags, tie them up, and then load the gun onto the post. This is all done with bare fingers.
My knuckles are swelling up from the cold. My fingertips are rubbed raw and the skin is flaking off, and perhaps considering getting calloused. My friend Mona from Poland made me some home-made solid lotion, and I am rubbing it on my fingertips daily. So far it’s the only thing that helps.
Saturday, December 7th, 2019
This is it! Despite the races officially starting yesterday, today is when the European crowds will sit down and watch the show live on TV. The atmosphere is charged, as the races have official begun.
More sponsorship banners are up, more media has arrived, and we even have spectators! Ski racing in Canada is NOT like Europe with the massive crowds, so I am surprised by the small group of people who have hiked up to my location on snowshoes to watch the race.
I am also a bit put out by the spectators, because now I have nowhere to use the ‘facilities’. I have been hiding behind my giant blue eye pad to shield me from the coaches, the media camera on its giant crane, and the course crew. The spectators are right across from me, and will get a full view. So, I wait until the races are over.
Longines Timing Crew – Not Good Timing
Our professional Longines timing crew drives up to Lake Louise well after the volunteers arrive. Apparently, no one told them it was Saturday! Lake Louise has been getting massive amounts of snow, and the ski-starved Calgarians have flocked to the mountain in record numbers to get some of that pow for themselves.
Our Longines guys were not prepared for the massive influx of people. As a result, they are stuck on the road in a traffic jam, crawling along at 8 km / hour. The parking lots have also filled up, so they also have to walk a lot further to get here. It is 9:30 am, and by now I should already have my giant timing bag and began the set up process. Instead, I wait at the bottom of the hill with the rest of the timing team.
Once the Longines team arrives, and it’s a dash to get set up. To speed things along, I not only set up all four guns, but also get them properly lined up. Luca is impressed. How did I do this when he didn’t show me? Well, Luca, I just watched you do it over your shoulder for the past several days. I have now risen one whole rung in the eyes of the Slovenian. As a thank you, Luca does extra shoveling in front of the timing guns so I don’t have to.
New Timing Lines
All week people have asked me why don’t I have any orange timing lines on the race course. I have no idea what they are talking about, and therefore have no idea why I’m without them.
Today, the mystery is solved. A member of the “Dye Team” has arrived. I’m not sure what this team is officially called, but they are responsible for drawing the race lines on the course using biodegradable and harmless food dye. It’s impressive that they can ski and spray perfectly at the same time. In addition to the course blue, another Dye Team Guy has a sprayer of orange dye. He draws perpendicular lines from either end of my timing guns – one for each pair.
This is my chance to again learn something new. I hike up to the Dye Guy and ask what these lines are for. The media uses these special orange lines to draw “ghost skiers” for the TV viewers. The media will place lighter, ghosted versions of the top skiers next to the current skier as she races down. This will show the audience if the current skier is faster or slower than the leader. It also shows the different lines the skiers take. If the leader was tight in a corner, yet the current skier is wide, that helps explain the 100th of a second difference in their final times.
The dye guy says that these lines make a bit of a mess in the snow, so they wait until the big spectator days to put them up. One more thing to learn about alpine ski racing.
Timing is Everything
As the races are about to start, it is clear the stress level is also up for the Longines timing team. They are being watched by millions of people on live TV. Nothing can go wrong. Sasha is responsible for another guy named Marco. Marco has to set some sort of countdown timing clock, and must press “Start” at the exact right moment. Apparently Marco did not get the memo. Sasha is beside himself with frustration as Marco either sets the wrong time, or starts the timer at the wrong time.
Turns out, this countdown clock is telecast live onto the viewer’s TV screens. It’s a big deal. Finally Marco gets it figured out, and Sasha’s blood pressure can come down. It’s hard not to laugh listening to the one-sided conversations that Sasha is having with Marco (all of us can only hear Sasha, but Sasha can hear all of us). I stifle a laugh, but Sasha hears me anyway and joins in. The mood is lifted.
Austrian Winner & Slovenian Chit-Chat
As Sasha knows I’m married to a (half) Austrian, he takes care to let me know when the top Austrian – Nicole Schmidhofer – races past. “Your husband will be pleased Alisen – the Austrian is in first place.” I tell him that I am actually rooting for the Canadians. That will be a tough one, Sasha informs me, without a hint of sympathy.
During one of the TV breaks, I tell Sasha that I just visited Slovenia last summer. Not only did my family and I stay in Bled, which is near Sasha’s hometown, but we climbed Slovenia’s tallest mountain – Mount Triglav! If I thought I had impressed Luca with the timing guns, it is nothing compared to Sasha. I have risen several pegs in his esteem.
By the end of the race, Sasha has forgotten all about my teammate Benoit being his favourite. Sasha thanks Benoit, but leaves out the customary ‘you were perfect’ remark. Instead, Sasha lavishes praise on my exquisite timing skills.
Back at the Communications Centre, my timing team is wondering what I did to impresses Sasha. I told them all they had to do was travel across the globe and climb a big mountain – easy.
The Bib Draw might be a thing everywhere, but it’s new to me. The top 10 women alpine ski racers get to pick their bib numbers for tomorrow’s Super Giant Slalom race. Lake Louise hosts this event in style. It is at the Chateau Lake Louise ball room, which is our premier hotel in the Canadian Rockies. Very swank, with amazing views of the actual Lake Louise, and the mountains towering above it. This event is open to all ski race enthusiasts as well as the Sled Dog team. The free food and alcohol ensures a big crowd. Children put their names into a draw, and if selected, get to accompany a skier onto the stage and help her pick a bib number.
Kids and adults are lining up for autographs. These women are rock stars in the world of ski racing.
Unfortunately, there are no Canadians in the Top 10. In honour of my Slovenian timing crew, I am cheering for the sole Slovenian woman in the top 10 – Ilka Štuhec. I know absolutely nothing about ski racing, but Slovenia is a small country with large and wealthy neighbours, just like Canada. I can understand their underdog status, so that’s good enough for me.
Sunday, December 8th, 2019
It’s the final day of ski racing. We are all up super early again – well before 5:00 am. Not only do we have to pack up and check-out of our hotels rooms before we start work, but the races start earlier today. All the Sled Dogs are tired and lacking sleep, but we have to keep going.
I am getting a real kick out of the various sponsors we have for the races. I’m sure these brands are a big deal in Europe, but I’ve never heard of them.
Part of our training is to keep an eye out for any signs of wildlife, and report any substantial sightings. The usual winter animals are cougars, lynx, wolves, pine martens and snowshoe hares. These are all rare sighting, unlike the Whiskey Jack, which is the namesake of one of Lake Louise’s ski lodges.
The Whisky Jack, also known as the Canadian Jay or Grey Jay, is a delightful bird that always finds its way to humans. They will eat just about anything, and this bird is keeping a close eye to see if we drop any crumbs.
To show how brave these small birds are: As we gathered together to eat our lunch, someone made a hand gesture, while holding a bit of sandwich. A Whisky Jack took this as an invitation. She swooped down, snatched the sandwich, and was gone before anyone could even react.
Super-G Pre-Race Ritual
Unlike the Downhill races, there are no practice runs for the Super-G. The track magically changes overnight from Downhill to Super-G, and the racers only get to see it once during their “Inspection” run.
As Claire’s Corner is the final feature before the finish line, I’m in a great spot to watch the action. All the skiers and their coaches have stopped here to review the race course. This means the Ski Paparazzi have unfettered access to the racers.
Then I get to witness a most amazing sight. As the racers arrive, they immediately prop themselves up on their poles, and drop into a deep meditation. They are mentally reviewing every turn and drop of the race, committing it to memory. They use their hands to indicate the turns, and degree of banking they need to do, plus the jumps they will take.
The Final Race
As expected, the favourite to win is American Mikaela Shiffrin, and does so from her #9 position. I am still cheering for the Slovenian Ilka to do well. As she gets ready to start her race, Sasha in the Timing booth is on high alert, making sure us timers are ready. Unfortunately, something happens early in the race, and Sasha is not happy. He switches to French and yells “Catastrophe!” in our headsets. She finished well back.
Once the final race is over, Sasha thanks us all for our work over the past week. It’s obvious he has a lot of work to do, as do I and the rest of the Sled Dogs.
Once the Women’s races are finished, the course is partially taken down. Next week the Nor-Am Cup is held here, but they have a shorter course than the professionals. The Finish Line is moved up to the base of Men’s Downhill, also known as the Timing Flats.
This means my entire timing station has to be taken down. I pack up the timing eyes as usual. but one of the Longines guys skis down and dismantles the posts the timers sit on. In a jiff, all four posts are gone.
I now have to dismantle the protective pads above each timing eye. These are bamboo poles held together with biodegradable hemp-like twine. The twine I shove into any open pocket I have, while the poles are placed in a pile. Eventually some guy skis down and collects the poles, but leaves the big pads for me.
I am not alone in my task though. One of my timing team members who’s station will remain for the Nor Am Cup has skied down to help me dismantle. Stan has done this before, and knows that we also have to find all the wires – no easy task after they have been buried in snow for over two weeks.
Stan then finds the router box and gets to work unhooking everything. This is finicky work, so I spend my time with a shovel, digging out the wires. We are careful to not disturb the camera guy, who is also busy dismantling his wires and equipment.
Once we have the wires free, Stan carefully winds them onto the spool. He must protect the wire ends somehow… We come up with a solution: left-over sandwich bags. I only have one, but thankfully the Course Crew digs through their pockets and find some extra zip-lock bags.
While all this is happening, the Course Crew is busily taking down the race course. One minute it’s there, and the next, it’s gone. Of course, this has taken over an hour to accomplish, but I was so busy with my own stuff that I missed it. The transition is startling, and I’m a bit sad. There is no evidence that my timing spot ever existed.
The next challenge is skiing all the equipment back to the base. With the big timing backpack, my personal backpack, plus several large blue safety pads, I more or less survival ski down to the base. The big blue pads either whip out to either side, throwing me sideways, or they collapse in front of me, acting like major wind blocks, which slow me down to a crawl.
Stan and I make several trips to haul stuff down, stopping in-between to shed as much clothing as we can in the Communications Trailer. Humping gear is sweaty work.
It is a very scattered good-bye process. Some of our team members have already left, as they live in the US and have a very long drive home. Others live near Vancouver, which is too far a drive to leave tonight. They will stay an extra night, and continue working taking down and storing equipment.
Cam, Benoit and I are the only three from Calgary. We need to drive home while we still have some daylight, so our Team Leader Henry officially releases us. It’s a hasty good-bye as everyone scrambles to get all their gear and clothes packed up, and head on out. There is no big finale. No group picture or group hug. We all just dissipate.
In the car, Cam and I are quiet. It’s been a long week. We’ve been with each other all day, every day, plus events every night. We sit in silence listening to Queen.
Thank you very much for staying with me, and reading about what it’s like to put on a World Cup Ski Race from behind the scenes. If you’re a ski race fanatic, I hope you learned something new. If you’re new to the world of racing, then you were learning right along with me.