Skiing superstars such as Mikaela Shiffrin and Lara Gut will be in Killington Nov. 26 and 27 to compete in the first World Cup racing event in Vermont in almost 40 years.
Killington resort officials, local businesses and area skiers are thrilled.
The resort has been making snow since Oct. 10, and opened for limited skiing and riding last month. But now the pressure is on to make sure conditions are just right for the fastest women racers in the world.
For the next several weeks, visitors to the mountain will either hear the high-pitched hiss of snow guns, the behind-the-scenes maintenance sounds of power tools or a mix of both. It all depends on the weather, says Jeff Temple, director of mountain operations at the resort.
“This time of year, snowmaking’s very busy, whether we’re actually making snow or it’s just a warm day out," says Temple.
Standing in a vehicle maintenance garage, Temple points to a row of bright red grooming machines being serviced.
“There’s all kinds of maintenance that happens,” he says, walking past a snowmobile with its hood up. And a lot of work is still going on slope-side, he says, even if it’s above freezing.
“They’re fluffing up guns; what we call going up and resetting guns from the previous production. They’re resetting hoses; setting up for the next go around that will come soon," Temple says.
With the World Cup event just weeks away, it’s Temple’s job to make sure that there’s snow, and that everything else on the mountain is working right. He’s got a detailed plan for that, and says he'll be ready. But he admits Mother Nature has to do her part.
“It’s kind of funny nowadays with the internet, because everyone’s a weather person," he says. "So I’m bombarded all day long with, ‘Hey, have you seen the long-term [forecast]?’ ‘Have you seen this or that?’"
Temple says he tries not to look too far ahead when it comes to the forecast. But he says historic weather data has been key for planning.
“We love data around here, and analysis,” he says. “So we went back 10 to 15 years and tried to get a sense of the October-to-November period and what we have available for temperatures.”
Unlike in January or February, when you can count on entire days being cold, in November you may only get a few hours at a time. So Temple says they need to take advantage of every frigid minute.
To do that, they beefed up their snowmaking infrastructure along the Superstar Trail, where the races will be held. That run already has a lot of snowmaking equipment, says Temple, "because it's the run we keep open the longest in the spring. But we added more hydrants, guns and piping to ensure more air and water power.
"The reward to that is the other day when we had about six hours overnight [with freezing temperatures], we were running about 100 guns on that trail, which is at a spacing that isn’t normal in the industry. It’s much closer spacing to get more snow down in a given amount of time."
While it’s the resort’s job to provide the snow, Temple says the International Ski Federation will send a specialty crew to fine-tune the slope for race day. “And they have these pipe devices that water comes out of all these little holes,” he says. “And they’ll actually go down the trail, which is 3,200 feet long, every 4 inches and inject water into the trail to make it harder.”
Imagine an ice rink at about a 30-degree angle.
Former British Olympic skier Gar Trayner says racers like their snow firm, and he says Superstar won't disappoint.
“Oh, it’s an awesome race hill. You know, it’s a really challenging hill," he says. "There’s no give up.”
Trayner is director of athlete development at the Killington Mountain School, a local, private ski academy. He says the slope is ideal for slalom, and will provide good vantage points for spectators.
“[It] starts super steep, and then into the kind of launch pad and meadows area. That part’s a bit flatter, but the skiers will keep accelerating,” he says. “I can expect anything averaging between 40 and 60 miles per hour average speed.”
Trayner says for KMS students, it's an unbelievable opportunity to see the best of the best up close, and he says their top female students will be forerunning the courses to test the clock immediately before the world cup racers begin.
"It's a great opportunity for our local athletes to really see what a lot of them aspire to be, which is World Cup ski racers," says Trayner.
He says the fact that Killington hasn’t been part of the World Cup circuit in recent memory makes the race even more challenging.
“There’s not a lot of reference," he says. "No one knows what to expect here on Superstar. It’s not been competed on very much in the past, so there are a lot of unknowns."
Trayner says he believes this will make the races really interesting.
“It rarely happens in the World Cup environment where you introduce new hills that haven’t been raced on as much for many years,” he says.
This year’s World Cup season began Oct. 21 in Soelden, Austria. This weekend, the athletes will be in Levi, Finland.
The last time a World Cup race was held in the northeastern U.S. was in 1991 in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire. Vermont last hosted a Wold Cup race at Stratton in 1978.
Herwig Demschar coached the Austrian national ski team back in the 1980s, and U.S. champions such as Picabo Street and Hilary Lindh in the '90s. He now heads up international business development for Powdr Corp, the company that owns Killington.
Demschar says he’s been pushing Ski Federation officials to consider Killington for a World Cup race for years.
“And I actually gave up on the whole thing," he says. Then, "for whatever reason, the International Ski Federation called us and said, 'Are you still interested in doing that?' and we said, 'Oh yeah.'”
The late-November women’s slalom and giant slalom races had been scheduled for Aspen, but the Colorado resort was chosen to host this year’s World Cup Finals in March. Demschar says Ski Federation officials typically don’t schedule two World Cup events a season at the same resort, so that provided an opening for Killington.
Locals are thrilled. Bret Williamson manages the Basin Ski Shop in Killington and works in local real estate. “Yeah, everybody’s very excited," he says. "There’s a huge buzz going around, everybody’s talking about it."
Williamson says hotels and short-term rental housing are nearly filled for the race weekend, which he says is a great way to jump start the season. And he and others say the international exposure will be priceless.
“It’s going to put us on the map,” says Williamson, smiling. "It’s going to change things forever. Everybody’s got to up their game here. To get this to come back year after year would be a huge accomplishment, and it’s just a really exciting time to be in Killington.”
Grandstand and VIP tickets for the race sold out quickly, but Killington officials say anyone who wants to come and stand along the course to watch the races can do so for free. Learn more about the event here.