No snow at Olympic venues, but folks aren’t worried

By Patty Henetz The Associated Press
Thursday November 22, 2001

PARK CITY, Utah — It’s Thanksgiving week and the American flags on Park Avenue flutter in a quiet breeze, the sun hangs in a sapphire sky and a few gauzy clouds trail over the Wasatch Mountains. 

It’s supposed to be snowing. The Olympics are coming, yet here the mountains around prime competition venues were brown and furry-looking, like a lion’s dry, dusty back. 

Only Payday, Park City Ski Area’s showboat ski trail, seemed to have enough snow on it for a top-to-bottom run, thanks to the snowmaking guns. The run just east of Payday, King’s Crown, was a ribbon of bare dirt. 

Not to worry, said Ski Utah spokesman Nathan Rafferty. Snow’s coming. 

“Most people don’t know we get 500 inches a year. And in the horrible years, we get a meager 400 to 450 inches,” he said. “The Olympics are in February. I guarantee that the worry is that there is going to be too much snow rather than too little.” 

Don’t expect weather experts to make such a promise, however. Steve Dunn, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, flatly refused to forecast February conditions in November. 

If snow doesn’t fall during the Winter Games, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee is ready with snowmaking machines at all the venues, said Grant Thomas, SLOC’s manager of venues. 

“We have full course coverage. All we really need is cold weather,” Thomas said. The optimum temperature for snowmaking is 25 degrees, but it’s possible to make snow at 30 or 31 degrees. 

“Too much snow is probably more of a problem,” Thomas said. “You have to continue grooming it, and continue to make the course race-ready. Man-made snow is actually better, so it’s used to finish off the preparations.” 

Only one Utah ski resort — Brian Head, 218 miles south of Salt Lake City in southern Utah — planned to open on Thanksgiving with man-made snow. The other ski areas were waiting for their first winter storms. 

At Snowbasin, only the highest peaks had a powdered-sugar dusting. But Snowbasin, an Olympic venue, has the most advanced snowmaking equipment of any Utah resort, with 547 computerized snowmaking guns covering 22 miles of ski trails, including the men’s and women’s Olympic downhill, super-G and combined race courses. 

The guns are linked by 106 weather stations that snowmaking manager Justin Rowland will monitor and adjust individually; the computers will check the guns’ temperature probes every 15 minutes and continually fine-tune the snow spewing onto the courses. 

The weather, however, has yet to cooperate. “It has to snow, or it has to get cold, and it hasn’t done either,” Rowland said. 

The National Weather Service forecast a series of storms would advance across the West during the long holiday weekend. The first was supposed to bring 4 to 6 inches of snow. Each successive storm will be colder. 

By the end of the weekend, the snow in the Cottonwood canyons will be measured in feet. “Even Park City will do well,” forecaster Dunn predicted. 

Snowbasin’s Rowland scoffed at Dunn’s report. Four to 6 inches, “that’s nothing. You get 2 feet of Utah powder and it packs to about this,” Rowland said, holding his thumb and index finger 2 inches apart. 

Last February, World Cup ski races at Snowbasin were canceled because a three-day blizzard buried the course. The year before, Snowbasin lost the premier event to Colorado, which had snow, unlike Utah. 

All this points to the futility of hand-wringing over the weather. 

“It’s like being a farmer,” said Alta Mayor Bill Leavitt, who has watched the Utah skies for more than a half-century from the deck of the Alta Lodge, his family’s ski hotel. “Every five years you get a drought. So you become philosophic.” 

Or you can tease the snow gods, like Mike Berliner did by wearing rubber flip-flops on his otherwise bare feet on a November morning. “Until it snows, I wear sandals,” said Berliner, a vacation time-share salesman for the Marriott Corp. in Park City. “Last year, we were skiing in October.” 

Jim Smith, co-owner of The Shirt Off My Back, a souvenir shop on Park City’s Main Street, was clad in shorts and a polo shirt; he was not underdressed. Smith shrugged off concerns about a snow-free holiday. “Thanksgiving is kind of hit-or-miss,” he said. “This is just normal.”