With the winter sports season melting fast, organizers of the World Cup cross-country ski race say they have enough snow stockpiled to keep the course frozen through mid-March.
It’s the first race of its kind in the United States in almost 20 years, expected to bring up to 20,000 people to Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis. Many of the spectators will likely be there rooting for Olympic gold medalist and Afton’s own Jessie Diggins to win.
The international event begins March 14, culminating with the sprint finals March 17, days before the vernal equinox.
Knowing the unpredictability of Minnesota winters, John Munger, executive director of the Loppet Foundation, which is hosting the race, oversaw a massive snow-making effort.
“We’re not naive: It’s March in Minnesota,” Munger said last week. “You can get all kinds of different weather. So we’ve been planning since the beginning for the very real possibility of warm weather in March.”
How warm, exactly? Enough to melt snow on the ground since Thanksgiving down to the brown grass, according to the National Weather Service.
That’s not exactly rare for the tail end of the season; in 2017 at this time there was no snow on the ground at all, according to the Weather Service. The forecasts show temperatures will be hovering to the mid-40s later this week.
That’s why the snow guns have been firing all winter. Since November, the Loppet’s trails crew has made about 720,000 cubic feet of snow — with almost 5 million gallons of water — to make sure there is enough on the ground come race day. Most of it is spread out on the course already, groomed in a crisp corduroy pattern.
It’s not the first event the Loppet has had to make snow for — international competitions across the world are held on artificial snow — but it’s the biggest, Munger said. Crews used 12 snow guns to make it all, hooking them up to hydrants stationed across the course that pumped out cooled water from lines that run underneath the entire park.
Machine snow is made to be perfect, in a sense. Unlike what falls from the sky, the manufactured snowflakes do not have a complex, crystalline structure, instead coming out round and compact. Munger compared skiing on them to gliding above ball bearings.
Artificial snow is also more resistant to warm weather, said Slater Crosby, a member of the World Cup’s organizing committee, as he skied along the course last week. Where real snow gets wet when exposed, the machine-made variety stays crunchy and hard.
“It’s like a snow cone,” Crosby said. “Any moisture we get, the water kind of drains to the bottom. Even in a 50-degree day, you can have amazing skiing on man-made.”
Of course, what is preferable to one skier may not be for another. Crosby and Munger both speculated that Diggins in particular would do better in softer snow.
“The more we can make it longer and harder, the better she’ll probably do. And spectators don’t care how fast it is,” Munger said. “If Jessie wins, they’ll be happy.”
In addition to what’s on the trails, crews have also amassed machine-made snow in giant mounds called “whales” because of their shape. If the melting takes a big toll, workers will use snow groomers to push those whales onto the course.
“You don’t want to spread it out too early, because if you do, spread-out snow melts easier than snow in a big pile,” Munger said. “So we’ll wait until the very end before we push those piles out.”
In the case of a warm-weather emergency, there are reserves to the reserves: the snow on about 5 kilometers of trails not being used in the competition.
This week is the calm before the storm for the Loppet. The snow guns were shut off three weeks ago, corralled in a ditch in the infield. Next Monday, the organization will decide whether they need to push out the whales, adding a fresh layer of snow on the course.
For now, Munger is keeping a watchful eye on the conditions — and the weather forecast.
“The next couple of weeks, I’m sure we’ll be thinking about it all the time,” Munger said. “We want to make sure we have a great course.”