How Soldier Hollow beat the heat and hosted the U.S. Biathlon nationals
At 9 a.m. on Saturday morning, it was 38 degrees at Soldier Hollow. The sun was out, warming the grass, clover and dandelion sprouts that poked up beside the white ribbon of snow that wound around the park — it was spring, but Soldier Hollow still had to host the U.S. Biathlon Association Junior and Senior National Championships.
That there was any snow left at all was impressive. The 3.3-kilometer track was the product of intense snowmaking efforts, pulled off only with the support of years of experience, help from an outside skiing club, and no small amount of luck. As biathlon athletes crossed the finish line, each one praised the course staff for keeping some semblance of winter in a landscape that had moved on.
“It’s incredible what they did here because it’s spring here,” said Lowell Bailey, U.S. Olympic biathlete. “For the most part, everywhere else it’s springtime but on the course it’s winter.”
He said the race conditions were amazing — warm temperatures and a hard, fast truck underfoot.
“I was uncertain (there would be a track) a couple of weeks ago, especially after seeing (cross-country) junior nationals in ankle-deep slush the whole time,” said Vincent Bonacci, a Soldier Hollow biathlete. “But they’ve done wonderful things though. This was way better than I thought it would be. Congratulations to the grooming crew.”
At the starting line, Scott “Petey” Peterson, who is in charge of mountain operations at Soldier Hollow, raised the starting pistol and fired the last shot of the races. As soon as the last racer had skated past, he began turning off the accompanying instrumentation that stood nearby. Finally, he and Marc Birdsill, head of snowmaking, who had also helped athletes assemble at the start line, could relax after a season-long gauntlet of stress and hard labor.
“We got lucky,” Birdsill said with a laugh. “Typically at this time of year we don’t have anything but flowers and green grass, but this year we got lucky and we have a 3.3-kilometer track of man-made snow — the only Nordic skiing in Utah right now.”
Back in January, he said that outcome was doubtful at best. The season had been unseasonably warm and dry, and the lack of snow — compounded by a string of snowmaking issues, including faulty pipes, plus pump-house and electrical issues — had forced Soldier Hollow to scrap some high-profile events. The TUNA/Soldier Hollow Nordic Center SuperQualifier, which draws youth athletes from around the Intermountain division, was moved. Officials also canceled the University of Utah cross country team’s Utah Invitational, which moved to West Yellowstone, Montana.
And the snow that Soldier Hollow did make faced long spells of warm weather, even at night.
“One week, we lost a foot of man-made snow back in February,” Peterson said.
According to Birdsill, who was at Soldier Hollow for the 2002 Winter Games, it was the first time the venue had to outright cancel an event, and canceling the Utah Invitational and the SuperQualifier did not bode well for the rest of the season.
“I didn’t think it was a possibility,” Birdsill said of hosting a race in late March. “If I’m canceling races in January when I typically have snow, there’s no way we’re going to make our goal of getting there.”
Peterson said he was equally doubtful, and thought Soldier Hollow would have to cancel the rest of the events for the season, including a National Guard biathlon tournament, and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Cross Country Junior National Championships.
But in late February, Midway experienced a cold snap, which gave the Soldier Hollow crew a small window to stockpile snow. In three days, Peterson said, the team made almost as much snow as it did over the rest of the season — blowing it into huge piles that they sculpted and groomed into features on the cross-country course. The mounds were carved into plateaus, with the course rolling straight over the top, and could be used as snow reserves, ready to be spread over the track throughout the season. Peterson said humidity was a major issue in creating them. Soldier Hollow’s snowmaking system has a throughput of 1,600 gallons of water per minute, but not a drop of it will matter if it isn’t mixed at the proper air/water ratio. Only two of the team’s 19 snowguns have digital controls for reaching the right mix, and the rest must be adjusted by hand — they require one person to turn a bolt with a wrench while another stands in front of the gun, watching the snow hit his jacket, indicating whether the product requires more or less air to reach the ideal consistency.
“The guys became very efficient at it,” Peterson said. “They definitely learned how to really watch each gun and make it work really well.”
With the resulting snow, Soldier Hollow was able to host the rest of the events of the season up until mid-March, when prolonged rainfall jeopardized the course again.
Birdsill estimated it rained for 18 hours straight, which destroyed sections of the start and finish areas and the biathlon’s penalty loop.
In prior weeks, Zach Hall, the manager and head coach of Soldier Hollow’s biathlon program, had been to the Casper Mountain Trails Center in Casper, Wyoming, and had seen the contingency track. In a phone call on Monday, Hall said the Casper venue looked no better than Soldier Hollow — there essentially wasn’t a good emergency option.
“That turned the heat up another notch,” Birdsill said.
To prepare the course and fix the stadium area, Peterson drove to California, where he borrowed a bucket attachment for a snowcat from the Truckee area-based Auburn Ski Club.
“Came back Monday (March 26), got it on Monday evening and moved quite a bit of snow,” he said. The crew also rented a front-end loader and scraped snow off the venue’s then-closed tubing hill and brought it down to the stadium area.
“It was a couple 16-hour days of moving snow to make it happen,” Peterson said.
On Saturday, the temperature climbed to 53 degrees by 11 a.m. and the course was still holding together.
“To pull this off this late in the season, we got really lucky,” Birdsill said.
To celebrate, Birdsill, Peterson and some of the members of their six-man crew packed vans with mountain biking gear, and planned to drive south. After stressing about snow for so long, they were pleased with the thought of getting away from it.
“It’s occupied all of our lives,” Birdsill said. “I mean we have guys that just sit around and watch the thermometers. … It’s a lot of dedication between a group of six or eight guys. Let’s hope we don’t go through this next season, and let’s hope we get good natural snowfall.”
Peterson and Birdsill said the 2017-2018 winter was the worst they’ve seen. The last time the snow was lousy — in late 2006 — the next season was much better.
“I am hoping for a banner year,” Birdsill said.
Next February, Soldier Hollow will host a Biathlon World Cup, which will make the venue the face of Utah for the international biathlon community, Birdsill said.
“So I want to put our best foot forward for that,” he said. “Hopefully we get a break from Mother Nature next year and make this thing work.”
But if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, Soldier Hollow staff will know how to handle it.