Life on the Talon Crew (she said)3 Dec 2010
Beaver Creek Resort first opened in 1980. Originally conceived as an Olympic venue, it rapidly became a premier American racing venue. The Beav hosted the World Ski Championships in 1989, again in 1999, and was recently awarded the 2015 World Ski Championships.
Beaver Creek also annually hosts the Birds of Prey, the only regularly-scheduled World Cup ski race in America. The Birds of Prey consists of three races: the Downhill (the fastest and most dangerous event, a “speed event”), a Super G (another “speed event”) and a Giant Slalom (known as a “technical event” because it involves more precision and agility than raw speed). Top racers arrive every December to test themselves against the mountain and against each other.
Hosting a World Cup ski race involves an enormous amount of work. While it might seem as simple as putting up a few sponsors banners, setting some race gates and organizing a clock, the race course actually requires tremendous preparation and maintenance. The work is so difficult that it is impossible to hire workers for the job. In Europe, where alpine ski racing is a national pastime, host countries assign army soldiers to prepre the race course. At Beaver Creek, the work is done by volunteers – hundreds of them – known as the Talon Crew.
The Talon Crew consists of about 400 volunteers who work for approximately 10 days, starting a week before the first race, to make sure that the hill conditions for the Birds of Prey are the best in the world. This is our second year volunteering with this group, and we thought you might like to know what it’s like to put on a World Cup Ski Race. This is what our work was like on Tuesday.
The alarm rings at 5:00 am. We start the day with “World Cup Breakfast Burritos” prepared by a friend who knows just how much energy the day is going to take. By 5:50 am we are fully geared up for a day on the hill and walk to the employee bus stop for a ride up the hill from Avon (where we live) to the resort. It is still dark when we load the chairlift on our way to the mid-mountain Spruce Saddle lodge, volunteer headquarters. A quarter moon hangs over the lift and the stars shine against the indigo sky while the lights of the homes in the valley fall softly on the snowy landscape. It is also very, very cold.
By 6:30 am we arrive at volunteer headquarters in the upper floor of the Spruce Saddle lodge. At 6:45 am the crew chief briefs the groups on the day’s events, projects, and safely procedures. After the briefing, we put on all of our gear and head to the top of the mountain. It is dawn.
A World Cup ski race can’t be held on a normal ski hill. Work on the Birds of Prey course begins with the Beaver Creek professional race crew in October. They supplement the natural snowfall with manmade snow to ensure that all rocks, trees and obstructions of the mile-and-a-half race course are covered. Then comes the “A” net. This is the last and biggest line of defense in case a racer, who travels at speeds up to 80 mph, should fall or loose control. These nets catch the skier who may fly (literally) off the course and keep them from hitting trees in the woods. They are about 25 feet tall and run along almost the entire course. In front of the “A” net is anywhere from 1 to 3 layers of “B” fence which serve to catch (or at least slow) falling skiers prior to an impact on the “A” net. Between the professional crew and the volunteers, over 5 miles of “B” net are installed along the race course.
Now, World Cup skiers don’t ski on snow. Really? Yes, they actually ski on ice. The industry phrase is “injected snow.” Starting 10 days before the race, the Talon Crew sets out with fire hoses and long pipes with dozens of nozzles and soaks the race course with approximately 2.5 million gallons of water. This water freezes and turns the race course into semi-vertical ice skating rink. The ice will last until late March, making this slope, “Golden Eagle,” the most challenging ski run in the county.
The Talon Crew has four basic assignments beyond watering; we “slip the race line”, meaning we slide with our skis sideways to the hill or in a wedge to remove any actual snow from the ice’s surface and to polish the ice to a smooth finish; we stomp down and then rake or shovel this excess snow off the race course over the “A” and “B” nets into the woods; we install “B” nets; and we smooth the race course between racers by slipping the course or or by raking.
This is all physical, challenging work which frequently lasts from dawn until dusk on slopes so steep that it is often impossible to stand without crampons. So, why do we do it? We actually have a great time! It’s fun!! The Talon Crew consists of a group of people with positive attitudes and a great fun streak, and we are happy to join them. And the bonus? Being on the race course, feet away from the best skiers in the world as they pass you at speeds up to 80 mph and soar off jumps that take them over 100 feet through the air.
We arrive with our crew at the top of the race course just after dawn. Our first trips down the course involve pushing any overnight snow off the race course with our skis. This is actually a lot of fun. Our crew of 9 takes turns sliding sideways down the race course. The goal is to keep your skis sideways to the hill and push the excess snow down with you. Basically, we each start a mini-avalanche and ride it down, much like surfing, to the shovel-out area at the bottom of each pitch. Each skier takes a section of the race course as wide as their skis, following tip-to-tail the path cleared by the preceding teammate. In areas where the snow is too deep for this, we trample it down and subsequently remove it by rake and shovel. This part is not so fun. It’s like riding a StairMaster at 10,000 feet with 20 pounds of skis and snow on each leg.
Once the race course is suitably cleared of snow around 11:00 am, we quickly consume sandwiches at the volunteer hut and report our assigned area just above the Golden Eagle jump. We work on the surface of the jump, smoothing the racecourse and removing any excess snow. By now it’s 12:30 pm – showtime!
At 12:30 pm the racers begin coming down the hill. Today is a training run, but it is executed exactly like a real race. I stand on the sidelines, directing the skiers who travel down the course between racers (coaches, ski technicians, and course maintenance workers). Kent stands with a big yellow flag just above the Golden Eagle jump. Should a racer have an accident on the Golden Eagle jump, Kent will wave the subsequent racer out of the course, stopping the race. We are quite close to the racers as they come down the course, and they make a most unusual sound. The sound of a human traveling 70 mph without the aid of machinery is difficult to describe. The racers thunder as they pass, but the sound is soft, like a rocket ship with a velvet engine.
The training runs all happen without incident, and the last racer finishes the course at around 2:30 pm. The Talon Crew heads back to the top of the hill. We spend the next few hours shoveling excess snow from “The Brink”. By the time we finish and ski to the bottom, the sun has set. It is about 5:00 pm. Just another day on the Talon Crew.
NBC will cover the Birds of Prey race Sunday, December 5th at 2pm ET. Universal Sports will also webcast the event.