Flowers bloom near the Extreme Sports venue at the highest Olympic elevation. Amid above-freezing temperatures in Sochi, snow-making for alpine events has been dependent on a Toronto operator. David Common/CBC
Snow is one of those non-negotiables when it comes to hosting a Winter Olympics. So when cross-country skiers started tearing off their sleeves to combat the warm temperatures, it was clear there was a problem.
The American Billy Demong complained his Nordic Combined competition felt like "skiing on a layer of fur." Taylor Fletcher, also on the U.S. team, worried about the snow becoming slush: "It hooks your skis and makes everything slower," he said.
The nightmare weather scenario for Sochi was consistent rain, which would wash away the courses in the mountains. That hasn’t happened. But the warm weather isn’t much help either.
The lower-altitude cross country and ski jump facilities haven’t experienced a single day below freezing since the Games began. Wide swaths of the mountain are green and brown. Even at the highest facilities, flowers have begun to bloom, as melting snow trickles its way towards the Black Sea.
Sochi, like Vancouver, was prepared for weather. Organizers began storing snow two years in advance in giant silos. But preserving and moving mass quantities of snow is problematic and much of what is available has turned brown.
Canadians to the rescue
Anyone who has ever been downhill skiing will have seen snow cannons — they shoot cold water at high pressure into the air, where freezing temperatures turn it into snow. But for those to work, it needs to be –2 C or colder. Many venues have been much warmer throughout.
Here’s where Canadian technology comes to the rescue.
Beating out its much bigger competitors for the Olympic contract, Toronto-based IceGen has three truck trailers in constant operation near the ski jump facility in Krasnaya Polyana. They are the only operators who can make snow, when the temperature is in the positive. They’ve even pulled it off on a baking 25 C day, pre-Games.
Hannu Pesonen with SnowTek, the Finnish firm which makes separators to pair with IceGen’s slurry machines, explained the process to me.
"We take water and electricity and then we cool down the water so that we create binary snow crystals in the water, which makes very wet snow," he said. "Then we separate the water out of the snow."
It’s a 24/7 operation with fresh snow pouring out, being scooped up by a front-end loader and trucked away to snow-needy facilities. "We have three trailers here and each trailer can produce 120 tons of snow each day," Pesonen explained. "There is no other system, which is mobile, that can do that."
While IceGen is required to produce snow — as needed — for the ski jump and Nordic Combined courses, the trucks have now started hauling snow further up the mountains. The organizers could use the stored snow (the brown stuff) as a base, but the Canadian-manufactured system is for the top layer.
The Olympics is a stage for television, so appearances matter. Both the desire to have snow in all the camera shots but also to hide any appearance of the problem. So IceGen’s equipment is covered in a white tarp. Mind you, so are all the snow-free areas on the mountains.