Warm weather, rain forces early closure of Olympic mountain to preserve snow

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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WEST VANCOUVER, B.C. - Olympic officials who've been dreaming of a white Winter Games are instead being met with a brown, muddy nightmare as unseasonably warm weather, heavy rain, and lack of snow forced the closure of the mountain that will host next month's snowboarding and freestyle skiing events.
Vancouver's Olympic organizing committee announced Wednesday that in a bid to preserve existing snow and protect the condition of the alpine courses, Cypress Mountain will be shut down to the public two and a half weeks earlier than expected.
As officials announced the closure at a news conference inside the Cypress Mountain media centre, outside the door the rain that's already washed away one metre of snow continued to fall.
Puddles dotted the landscape and those caught out without umbrellas were quickly drenched by the downpour.
"The good news is that the mountain bike venue is looking fantastic," joked Tim Gayda, vice-president of sport for the organizing committee, known as VANOC.
Gayda said closing the mountain early is the responsible thing to do to ensure the courses are ready for Olympic athletes.
But while the slopes looked better suited for a mud wrestling match than snowboarding and freestyle skiing, Gayda insisted Olympic officials were prepared for such an outcome and stockpiled snow accordingly.
"The artificial snow in the upper parts of the mountain, we can build what we need to build," he said. "Where we stockpile the natural snow is really our contingency. So if we're faced with the same weather leading right into the Games . . . there's a fair bit that we've piled up."
Gayda said thousands of cubic metres of snow have been covered with tarps and he said officials have enough snow to hold the races.
While he conceded that no more artificial snow can be made unless the temperature drops, he appeared far from concerned about an absence of natural snow.
"We actually want to race on artificial snow," he said. "At all of our courses, the natural snow that we get, we traditionally mix it up with the artificial snow because the artificial snow's a lot denser and it's basically what the athletes are looking for."
Since November, VANOC has been using state-of-the-art equipment to turn 95.3 million litres of water into snow.
Areas of the mountain which will be used for Olympic competition have already been covered with over two metres of artificial snow.
Gayda said Vancouver wouldn't be the first Olympics to have weather challenges.
"Torino itself was brown leading right into the Games until they got snow," he said.
Temperatures hit 11C Wednesday in Vancouver and 4C up on the mountain.
Soft snow conditions and warm temperatures were partly responsible for cancellation of a men's and women's World Cup parallel giant slalom snowboard event last winter. The competition was supposed to be an Olympic test event.
Poor visibility due to fog also hampered a World Cup aerials event in 2008.
But Chris Doyle, manager of weather services for the Vancouver organizing committee and an Environment Canada meteorologist, said Cypress Mountain will soon get a reprieve from the rain and warm weather.
"It's looking like we're going to start transitioning from this warm, mild, wet, rainy pattern that we're in through the weekend and by early to the middle of next week we'll be in a more typical wintery regime, which means snow back to Cypress and also the opportunity to make snow," he said.
Peter Judge, chief executive officer of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association, said he and his athletes aren't yet concerned about the lack of snow at Cypress.
"(Olympic organizers) know what they have to do. They've got a great crew in terms of understanding the parameters that need to be fulfilled," he said.
"If it's a week before (the races) and you can see the temperatures on the horizon that are still looking bad, it's a problem."
The early closure will allow organizers to begin last minute construction that wasn't slated to begin until Feb. 1. Warming tents, fencing, signs and banners will be set up and snowmaking will continue as soon as the temperature drops.
The Olympic flame will be lit at the opening ceremonies in Vancouver on Feb. 12.
Gayda wouldn't say if the organizing committee will compensate Cypress for shutting down early.
Gayda originally said discussions were underway on the subject, but a VANOC spokeswoman called later to say there are no talks in the works.
Kent Rideout, a Cypress Mountain spokesman, also declined to provide details on compensation talks but he did say that season pass holders may have some money returned to them because of the early closure.
"It's been a very challenging season but I've actually been on this mountain for over 20 years and this certainly isn't the first time we've ever experienced a shutdown due to weather," he said, adding that conditions can change very quickly.
"We can go from having no snow on the mountain to opening in two days given the right weather conditions. In fact, that's often what happens at the beginning of our season."

Organizations: Environment Canada, Canadian Freestyle Ski Association

Geographic location: WEST VANCOUVER, Cypress Mountain

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