In Vermont’s Bid to Lure Pro Skiers, a Warm Welcome Is Unwanted


The organizers pressed ahead because holding the races near the large population of the Northeast corridor could pay dividends in revenue and attention. And if Killington’s gamble succeeds, it could set the stage for the region to become a fixture on the World Cup circuit.

It is hardly a sure thing. Climate change has already troubled elite ski racing for several years as reduced snow has in some cases forced the cancellation or relocation of events. Just Thursday, three December World Cup races at Beaver Creek in Colorado, where the peak elevation is nearly 11,500 feet, were canceled for a lack of snow and cold temperatures.

Early last week, the valleys of Vermont were largely snow-free, and a majority of its mountain peaks were still dry and green. Since mid-October, however, Killington has been blasting the resort’s premiere Superstar race trail with more than 100 snow guns whenever temperatures have dropped below 27 degrees.

With 20-person work crews sometimes toiling around the clock, the 3,200-foot trail where the world’s best female skiers are expected for a giant slalom on Nov. 26 and a slalom on Nov. 27 has been blanketed with snow 30 to 48 inches deep.

Given the unpredictability of the region’s weather — it was 63 degrees the day after Thanksgiving in central Vermont last year — race officials will be crossing their fingers and obsessively monitoring computerized weather models for the next week.

“Believe me, we will be talking to every weatherman and -woman in New England, and crosschecking their forecasts,” said Tiger Shaw, president and chief executive of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association. “The chances of having the right weather are pretty high, but they’re not 100 percent.”

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Mikaela Shiffrin, the 2014 Olympic gold medalist in slalom, pronounced Killington ready for racing, even as the surrounding countryside had not a dusting of snow.

Credit
Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

Gillian Galford, a professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont and the lead author of the 2014 Vermont climate assessment, said in an interview last week that average temperatures in November for the next 20 to 30 years were unlikely to rise enough to prevent powerful and technologically advanced snowmaking operations from producing sufficient snow to host World Cup races. Galford added that winter precipitation in Vermont over all would most likely increase.

But Galford also said that worldwide, and in Vermont, temperatures had become more volatile from year to year.

“It’s going to be up to the World Cup to decide how much risk of variability they’re willing to accept,” Galford said.

Temperatures are indeed creeping up.

On Vermont’s Mount Mansfield, which has a similar elevation to Killington’s peak, the average November temperature has risen 2.5 degrees in the last 10 years compared with the average temperature from the mid-1950s to 1980, according to Andy Nash, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service in Burlington.

Still, World Cup officials are highly motivated to bring races closer to the major population centers of the United States where winter activities are popular.

“I think a lot of stakeholders in the sport appreciate and welcome that we’ll have a tour stop on the East Coast of the U.S.A.,” said Atle Skaardal, the women’s World Cup Tour director for the international ski federation, known by its French abbreviation, F.I.S.

Skaardal added, “There is a very active race environment in this area of the country.”

Mikaela Shiffrin, the 2014 Olympic gold medalist in slalom, spent much of her childhood in New England and attended a Vermont ski academy. She said her World Cup colleagues from Europe had been asking about the shortage of snow in the United States.

“There’s talk about whether they’re not going to be able to do the race and whatnot,” Shiffrin said on a visit to inspect the Killington course on Monday. “But there’s enough snow on this hill for sure, and that’s exciting. I think the athletes are going to love coming here.”

Reliable manufactured snow is not that difficult to produce. The Killington resort, for example, has been open with multiple recreational skiing trails since Oct. 25. But there are considerable costs in labor and equipment — especially when the goal is snow cover that meets the demanding standards of the World Cup.

Manufactured snow is produced by combining water and compressed air at cold temperatures. It takes about 180,000 gallons of water to cover one acre in a foot of snow.

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Gondolas awaiting passengers for the ride to the snow-covered peaks at Killington Resort.

Credit
Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

The Killington race site is about 50 acres. Jeffrey Temple, Killington’s director of mountain operations, said the eight million gallons of water used on the Superstar race trail in recent weeks would fill a line of bumper-to-bumper tanker trucks stretching 13 miles, the approximate length of Manhattan.

All told, the resort has produced enough snow to bury a football field 42 feet deep. Killington, which is privately owned, has not disclosed how much it has spent on its preparations.

While the resort may be on the verge of proving that New England can again host a World Cup race, keeping the Eastern United States a regular part of the circuit may be just as reliant on two other factors: how flexible F.I.S. is willing to be with its race schedule, and how many Eastern resorts will volunteer to take on the risk and substantial expense of hosting an event.

This year’s races came to Killington only because a gap opened in F.I.S.’s March 2017 schedule after the World Cup Finals were awarded to Aspen, Colo. Aspen then gave up its spot as the longtime host of the 2016 Thanksgiving weekend women’s races.

Killington, which had been subtly lobbying F.I.S. for five years, leapt into the breach. That was about 18 months ago. Since then, F.I.S. has said it would like to keep the Eastern United States a part of its circuit but has not committed to doing so.

And it remains unclear how many Eastern resorts would do what Killington, an industry giant, has chosen to do: make a chancy investment dependent on capricious and evolving weather patterns.

There are considerable prospective financial and marketing gains for putting on a World Cup race; Killington is being rewarded with extensive international publicity for trying. But agreeing to host the event and then having to cancel the races would be a boondoggle.

“We considered it an educated, calculated risk,” said Herwig Demschar, a former ski coach for the United States and Austria, an Olympic Games planner and now a senior vice president for Killington’s parent company, Powdr. “It is also a capital investment for the resort.”

But even Killington has yet to say whether it would host another World Cup race in the future.

“We are going to wait and see,” Demschar said with a smile. “When the races are over, we’ll regroup and see if it does make sense to do it again.”

For the United States ski team, it is a major goal to have a race in the East as often as F.I.S. will allow it. But Shaw, the team chief executive, said that some things shaping the future of World Cup racing on the East Coast would always be out of his hands.

“The East is the East,” said Shaw, who grew up in Vermont. Then he referred to a saying by Mark Twain on the fickle nature of nature in this part of the country: “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.”

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