Making a World Cup course
February 2, 2016
Starting on Thursday morning with an aerials competition and Thursday night with a moguls event, the Deer Valley World Cup will bring some of the world’s top winter athletes to Park City. The event draws big crowds — some of the biggest on the World Cup tour — to cheer on hometown and home-country favorites.
Both the aerials and moguls courses are adorned with banners touting the event’s sponsors and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, the Park City-based host of the competitions, and look picture-perfect. The massive aerial jumps tower above the White Owl run and the picturesque moguls on the Champion run look almost machine-made in their uniformity.
Though the courses look effortlessly perfect to the thousands of spectators, the construction of the iconic runs involves massive efforts from Deer Valley employees and volunteers in the days leading up to the competitions.
Two men — Chief of Moguls Tony Gilpin and Chief of Aerials Wayne Hilterbrand — are responsible for leading their teams and making sure construction of the courses is done correctly and on time. Each faces different challenges with their particular process.
On Thursday afternoon, Gilpin and his crew of about 15 volunteers were hard at work on the moguls course, each armed with a shovel and boots with plenty of traction. Gilpin said Thursday was the hardest day of work for the moguls crew.
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"Today, we are forming," he said. "It’s our first day with volunteers and we’re just forming the moguls."
The night before, Gilpin, Chief of Course Nat Sherman and a snowcat driver got everything in place for Thursday’s labor.
"We were out here on the course making the moguls, pushing them up one at a time with the cat," Gilpin said. "The very first thing we do, Tuesday night, is we put up tabletops, or jump platforms. It’s a knoll, or flat spot. The mountain starts out totally the same pitch all the way down. We come in and make two flat spots — 15 percent of the way from the top, 20 percent from the bottom. It ends up about 50 meters up from the finish line and about 40 meters down from the top. Those platforms are where the jumps go.
"The next night, Wednesday night, we lay down a rope, which is 250 meters long. Every close to four meters, we have either a red or blue flag tied onto the rope. That’s the spacing for each mogul. The snowcat pushes snow into each of the red flags. Then we move the line over and he pushes into each blue flag. Then we move the line over again — you do that four times."
Then, Gilpin said, it’s time to bring in the volunteers. Gilpin’s crew is made up almost entirely of veterans who have been on the crew before. They know what they need to do, which Gilpin said makes his job easier. He’s simply there to keep everything moving smoothly.
"[After Wednesday night] it’s just piles of snow with no shape to them and no way you can ski them — you can barely sidestep down them," he said. "All of our volunteers, the first day, we don’t even put skis on. We just walk down the hill, breaking the bigger chunks down and keeping the pile where it is, but making it smooth enough you can ski down it. We shave off anywhere from a couple inches to a couple feet at a time. We’re trying to take the mogul from a block of chunks of ice to a nice, round, smooth, skiable mogul."
If that sounds like a grueling process, it is. Gilpin said it takes him and his volunteers all day to do one pass down the course.
"We go about halfway and then I send them for lunch," he said. "Then we come back and do the second half. It’s a one-run, full workday of mainly shaving. We use really sharp shovels and have a grinder up top that I grind a nice sharp edge [onto the shovels]. The snow is very hard — almost ice."
On Friday, the volunteers had a much easier day, Gilpin said.
"It’ll be a lot of on-ski stuff," he said. "They’ll be slipping down with the shovel, fine-tuning. Friday, we’ll build the jumps, too. There will be eight jumps — four at the top knoll and four at the bottom knoll."
The jumps aren’t made entirely out of snow, Gilpin said. They’re actually mostly ice by the time they’re finished.
"We have wooden boxes, jump forms," he said. "We set those up and fill them with snow and water from the snow guns out of a fire hose. We end up with a jump that’s about three feet tall and a solid block of ice. Each jump I’d say has at least 20 gallons of water in it. We add water throughout the week as they start to deteriorate. Athletes are jumping and using them with the sharp edges of their skis."
Once the athletes arrive at Deer Valley, maintenance becomes the name of the game.
"We drill holes into the jumps a lot of nights and fill them with water and fresh snow," Gilpin said. "We try to keep it as much of an ice block as we can. [The athletes] mutilate the jumps and the snow and the moguls. It’s a lot of maintenance to keep everything looking sharp."
Once the aerials hill is groomed and has the base set for the jumps, a similar process is used to build the jumps themselves, Hilterbrand said.
"We use concrete forms and set them up and then blow snow into them," he said. "They’re forms they use to make concrete walls and they’re made up of plywood and steel. We set them up and it basically builds a giant frame to blow snow into. We actually put a lot of water into the jumps when we blow them."
On Thursday afternoon, Hilterbrand and his crew were marking the hill to make sure they set the jump forms in the correct location.
"We’re squaring everything up so it’s square to the in-run and square to the landing," he said. "That way, when we put the jumps up, everything lines up."
The aerials crew’s job doesn’t end when the competitions begin, either. Much like with the moguls crew, there’s a lot of deterioration that must be dealt with.
"There’s always maintenance work to be done because people ski on it," Hilterbrand said. "It’s just one of those things where the jumps get tracked and the landing gets holes in it."
The aerials course has plenty of pine branches on hand as well. Hilterbrand said those get thrown down by the landing to help athletes see when they’re flipping and twisting through the air.
"I think they get a lot of that from everybody’s used Christmas trees," he said. "They mulch them up and use that to throw down the hill. That’s for visuals so they can see."
With two aerials competitions (Thursday morning and Friday night), Hilterbrand said he anticipates using more pine during the daytime contest.
"I think it’s easier to see the landing at night without putting all the pine on there," he said. "You’ll almost never have flat-light conditions during the night. During a day competition, you often get that."
Deer Valley support
Both Gilpin and Hilterbrand said Deer Valley offers great support to them and their crews. Gilpin said he often hears from visiting athletes that Deer Valley is their favorite place to compete.
"It’s always the best course in the world, every year," he said. "I hear it from everybody. It’s pretty much a given. Ruka, Finland, is trying and Calgary, Alberta, [Canada], puts on a great show right in downtown Calgary, but I still think they’ve got a little way to go to take on what Deer Valley offers."
Hilterbrand said the excitement from U.S. and foreign athletes comes from the entirety of the Deer Valley atmosphere.
"Quite honestly, they’ve got such a good crew here," he said. "It’s all about perfection and making everything exactly what it’s supposed to be. That follows through to everything, so you end up with such a nice course here. Everybody’s always psyched to come to this one."
Watching athletes carving up the moguls course to the applause and cheers of thousands of fans makes it all worth it at the end of the day, Gilpin said.
"It’s an honor to have the 8,000 to 10,000 people down there in the base area watching the event and knowing that we all started with just a groomed run," he said. "It’s a great feeling and it’s something to be proud of. It’s pretty cool."
The aerials competitions will begin at 10:20 a.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday. The moguls contest is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. Thursday and dual moguls will be contested at 7 p.m. on Saturday night.
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