Olympics (Sochi - old)

Susan Ormiston: Sochi's snow 'wizards' vow to work magic

A year ahead of Russia's first-ever Winter Olympics, the weather has been unseasonably mild, but snow "wizards" are promising the slopes will be white for the 2014 competitions in the mountains above Sochi, Susan Ormiston writes.

Olympic organizers making contingency plans for any kind of weather

A snowmaking machine sits at the ski jumping centre, which is the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games mountain venue at the lowest altitude. (Erin Boudreau/CBC)

At Sochi's new Olympic Park, three metres above sea level, it rains. It doesn't snow.

The coastal cluster of venues for ice sports during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games is on the Black Sea, with the climate not far off Vancouver's in February.

In the past week, on four out of seven days, it's poured buckets, drenching hundreds of workers exposed to the elements as they build the main stadium for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies.

Road to the Olympics

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But rain down here often means snow up in the Caucasus Mountains 50 kilometres away. At least that's the theory.

The Krasnaya Polyana area will host the alpine and sliding sports. But a year away from Russia's first-ever Winter Olympics, the weather has been unseasonably mild.

"This year is not typical with the temperature and snow," says Valery Lukyanov, the chief meteorologist for the Olympics.

Where he stands, outside his office, water runs down the street.

"Next year, Russia will take all efforts to ensure those ski tracks which are low have snow ... but on the higher slopes, the snow is always there."

He grins, thinking of something to convince doubting Canadians: "I think Russia made conclusions from those problems which you came across at the Olympics in Vancouver. That's why Russia will get ready for these problems beforehand."

Vancouver suffered through some soggy days during the leadup to the 2010 Winter Olympics. On Cypress Mountain, mogul training was jeopardized after heavy rains. Trucks and helicopters rushed in fresh snow from an inland mountain pass. Members of Sochi's organizing committee were in Vancouver, taking careful notes.

This week, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his deputies and busloads of national Olympic committees and international media descending on Sochi, there's no shortage of officials who'll jump up to answer queries about the snow.

February temperatures

  • Vancouver: 1 C to 8.4 C (average)
  • Sochi: 2 C to 10 C (average)

Sochi's forecast today: High of 16 C.

In Krasnaya Polyana on Tuesday, it was 9 C and raining. Last week, there was a blizzard.

Sochi was advertised as the place where the Black Sea meets the White Snow. Currently, however, black rock trumps white flakes.

At the new ski jump facility last Friday, training was cancelled in the rain. Patches of raw rock pushed up through a thin snow cover.

Out came trucks loaded with artificial snow, followed by snowdozers pushing piles down the steep run. Workers then tamped it down with shovels, smoothing the surface and strengthening the base.

Up higher, above 1,000 metres, a cluster of small temporary buildings is framed by two large water reservoirs, forming the command and control centre for one of Europe's largest snowmaking ventures. 

During a tour around the facility, Vyacheslav Soldatenkov described himself as the head of "snowmaking." He scooped up a handful of snow, squishing it into a ball.

"This snow is natural. You can see how fluffy it is. Its crystal structure is different from the artificial snow," he says.

He dropped the snowball. Duplicating that, it seems, is a little bit of magic.

"We are wizards," he says smiling. "We make snow.

"Naturally we are nervous a bit. We perfectly understand how much responsibility is on our unit. We realize that we should put in all our efforts to make the Olympics happen."

Here, snow is a science, monitored and manipulated. Large flat screens show data from each ski run and post the temperature, wind and precipitation. The job is not only to make snow, but also to lay down the right snow.

"It all depends on density," says Soldatenkov.

"For instance, for downhill we need dense snow. For snow cross and board cross, snow should be drier and softer. We try to match each discipline with particular snow properties."

That's provided they have enough snow to start with. On the slopes, 446 snow guns can shoot out artificial snow whenever it's –2 C or colder.

The reservoirs together hold 150,000 cubic metres of water and sit out in the open like swimming ponds. The water must be cooled even more and then a pumping station pipes it to the snow guns.

"In total, the system is capable of producing 2,800 cubic metres of snow per hour with such output we can produce huge amounts of snow in a very short time," Soldatenkov says.

If needed, the snow doctors can even lace the snow with an "inducer," meant to pump up its volume, a kind of Viagra for snowflakes.

Skiers in Canada, the U.S. and Europe are familiar with snowmaking on icy slopes. But Sochi's plan goes even further. The "wizards" are storing snow for next year.

Several hectares of slopes are set aside just for storage. Snow will be piled up for the next two months, then covered with thermal blankets. Sixty to 70 per cent of the mounds will stay cold enough throughout the summer months. Next February, the saved snow will be dumped on the slopes.

Few would have thought that Russia would need such measures, but it simply won't be caught out.

"We are right in the middle of testing our operational readiness to address some contingency plans for the extremely warm weather," says Dmitry Chernyshenko the CEO of Sochi 2014 Olympic Organizing Committee.

"In case we still needed to produce snow and the temperature will be warm, we also prepared a Plan C, a special snow producing plant which can produce snow at temperatures up to 15 degrees. So we guarantee that the snow will be at the Sochi Games."

The day he spoke to CBC, at the cross-country skiing venue, was the most beautiful of winter days. The sun shone and there was a thin layer of clouds above the mountains. Thick flakes of snow were falling.

"It's not a problem. It's just a challenge," Chernyshenko says. "Here in Sochi, we're in a subtropical city. This is an interesting example that humans can manage the weather in any condition."

Two days later, the rain was coming down again in torrents. Nature has a way of humbling the most confident predictions.

Susan Ormiston is CBC's award-winning foreign correspondent based in London.