John Aalberg is making trails in Turin | ParkRecord.com
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John Aalberg is making trails in Turin

Paul Robbins, Special to the Record

PRAGELATO PLAN, Italy He’s left the Wasatch Citizen Series for a while, but former Park City resident John Aalberg hasn’t left cross-country skiing. It’s in his DNA.

Aalberg, born 45 years ago in Norway, came to this country in the early Eighties to ski and run cross-country for the University of Utah. He worked as a systems engineer for UniSys after graduation while thumping most folks in the old Great American Ski Chase before joining the U.S. Ski Team in time for the 1992 Olympics; he retired after the 1994 Winter Games in his homeland – the slam-dunk best Winter Games – in Lillehammer.

Aalberg, who remains racing fit more than a decade after retiring from international skiing, took a lead role when the early plans called for the cross-country venue at the 2002 Olympics to be at Mountain Dell, and then in wetlands nearby. "Legacy" – post-Games use – became the watchword for x-c fans, and after a far-reaching survey of 20-plus sites up and down both sides of the Wasatch, Soldier Hollow was chosen; it’s become an award-winning facility, a four-season attraction – is there any place else where sheep dog championships are staged on a winter Olympic venue? (how cool!) – and Aalberg is spreading his Gospel of (Nordic) Legacy to Vancouver, host of the 2010 Olympics.

He moved his family – his wife, former speed-skiing world champion Kirsten Culver, and daughter, Anneli – to Squamish, B.C., last summer and Aalberg’s been traipsing into the thickets of Callahan Valley to help erect nordic venues for the Games of Oh-ten.

At the Olympic cross-country venue in this valley village of perhaps 46 – down the mountain from Sestriere, Aalberg is assistant technical delegate for the Internatoinal Ski Federation. He’s also been able to spend time with Hermod Bjorkestoel, the Norwegian who helped him design the trails layout at Soldier Hollow and who designed the Pragelato playpen by himself; the two of them are designing the cross-country trails in the Callahan Valley, not far from the storied Whistler alpine complex north of Vancouver.

The flowing trails of Soldier Hollow are repeated in Pragelato Plan – flats on one side of the Chisone River and long gradual uphills (and downhills) on the mountain. "We have a Norwegian fingerprint here and we’ll have one in Vancouver, too," Bjorkestoel says with an easy grin.

Aalberg, whose title in Nordic sport director, is the on-site facilitator at Callahan, which is largely wilderness and virgin pinelands; at Soldier Hollow, he was chief of competition but Aalberg was to go-to guy to get anything done before and during the Olympics. He and magic wand – and tireless staff – made things happen that people still drool about in describing how things got done four years ago.

He and Bjorkestoel have cut a rough road about six miles into a plateau where the village complex will be constructed. In the end, it will be about a $100 million project, encompassing not just cross-country trails – two 5K loops to start with another 25-30 Ks as a legacy for recreational skiers after the Games – but ski jumps and a biathlon course, too.

"As you drive in," Aalberg said after another day of Olympic racing here, "you first meet the two ski jumps and about another 400 meters in we’ll have the cross-country stadium, and then another 400m in we’ll have the biathlon stadium. In between, and up to the east and north, and around the stadium, we’ll have the competition trails…

"I’m overseeing biathlon, ski jumping, cross-country, nordic combined and the Paralympics. In terms of courses, Hermod and I are the two designers. It’s teamwork; I do the initial stuff that comes in, and give some main directions, then we go back and forth and, I think, it comes out good."

Aalberg, who first walked the grounds woodlands (slowly and carefully because of the thickness of vegetation) in Summer ’04, also has designed about five Ks of biathlon trails in the compact layout. It’s been slow going for two summers, he said, but the big leap forward will take place this summer at next.

The big issue is snow. Callahan can get upwards of four feet of snow. So far, Aalberg said, it’s been less than half that this winter, which means the snow could melt early and he and the various work crews could get an early shot at continuing the progress.

"We have all the trail alignments, they’re GPS’d and flagged. We’ve cut a rough centerline for most of them, but it’s just so we could get through because the vegetation in there is something you’ve never seen. It’s a jungle. It’s the British Columbia rain forest. But it’s all ready to be constructed this summer, so we’ll build all the trails then, all the stadiums. And then we’ll start all the buildings and finish it next summer…2007."

And, even for a Norwegian used to the rugged outdoors, and for someone who’s lived in the American West for two decades, the region takes his breath away.

"It’s big mountains, there are glaciers close by and great, huge trees," Aalberg said in his signature soft voice. "It’s pretty wild, pretty raw terrain."


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