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Snowbasin Ski Resort Prepares for 2002 Olympics - 2001-11-25

The Snowbasin Ski Resort in Huntsville, Utah will be the site of the men's and women's downhills, the super giant slalom and the combined events (downhill with slalom) at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The owners of the little-known resort will not only be honored to host such a prestigious event, but pleased to gain some exposure.

Eighty-seven kilometers from the Olympic Village in the middle of the Wasatch-Cache National Forest lies Snowbasin which, until recent years, was considered a "mom-and-pop" - or local - ski area. Though the 61-year-old Snowbasin was an unlikely choice to host an Olympic event, there were no other options because the venue has Utah's only downhill course certified by the International Ski Federation.

Salt Lake City billionaire Earl Holding bought Snowbasin in 1984. From that moment on, the resort has been hard at work in its expansion. Holding spent 16 years negotiating with the U.S. Forest Service about a land exchange. A deal was finally worked out that enabled Snowbasin to add nearly 560 hectares (1,380 acres) of base area. Since Holding has taken over, the venue has nearly doubled its amount of overall skiable acres to almost 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres).

Beginning in 1996, the venue has been out to prove itself worthy of the Winter Olympic games, undergoing a $70 million facelift, with $13.8 million of it coming from the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. Some of the money went towards two gondolas, one (jig-back) tram, four triple chair lifts and one high-speed quad lift to better access the race courses as well as the rest of the skiable terrain.

Another renovation to make Snowbasin more usable was the construction of a new access road that reduced the amount of time it takes to get to the resort from Salt Lake City by 30 minutes. One can now drive there in about one hour.

Justin Rowland, Snowbasin's head of guest services and snowmaking, says that the skiers can look forward to an extremely difficult course. Mr. Rowland said, "The course is probably going to be one of the most strenuous and challenging Olympic courses that you've seen in years. It has 70 percent [grade] slopes, it's all double fall-line, and there're no flat areas. There's pretty much no relaxation on this whole course. The first jump that they hit is a tremendous amount of air. Right after the jumps there's huge compressions where it's pretty much putting their knees into their chin [to keep their balance]. So the racers can barely stand up to keep going."

The challenge is accompanied, as always, by danger. Despite the 881-meter vertical drop on the men's course, designed by former Swiss Olympic downhill champion Bernhard Russi, Rowland assures that everyone at Snowbasin will be prepared for the safety risk. "Safety-wise," he said, "I think probably the utmost concern of the race department here is to keep the racers as safe as possible, even though it is a challenging course."

To make the venue catastrophe-proof, three types of safety nets have been installed. First, the "A" net was built to catch the skiers before they can land in the trees. Then, a "B" fence, consisting of up to three layers, surrounds the "A" net and would catch the skiers before they can reach the "A" net. Finally, there is a spectator fence, protecting the fans nearest the course. Most spectators, however, will seated in an arena that will hold between 28,000 and 30,000 people.

Justin Rowland says unlike the case at many downhill and super giant slalom courses, the fans will be able to see the skiers for a good portion of their races. "Actually," he continued, "you can probably see about the last third of the race from the finish arena because you can look up on the hill and you can actually see the bottom third of the course as they [the skiers] come down and through. The finish pitch is one of the most exhilarating and hardest turns on the course to watch as they come down off that steep slope and try and make their way around, so I think that, in it self, is going to be a great viewing."

A scheduled test event at Snowbasin last winter was cancelled due to bad weather, leaving some racers with a lack of experience on the course. However, skiers were able to get in two training runs and they were enough for the athletes to declare the venue ready for the Olympics.

The weather is a potential concern come February. An excessive amount of snow would make the course impossible to ski. Alpine skiers at the 1998 Nagano games became familiar with that situation. The downhill events there were rife with postponements. But according to Justin Rowland, Snowbasin gets most of its snow in late February, while the Olympic races are scheduled for the second week of February.

Snowbasin will even be prepared if there is not enough snow on the course. In 1999 a snowmaking system was installed that compresses air, water and cold temperatures to make snow.

The officials at Snowbasin have pulled out all the stops to make sure everything goes smoothly at their venue during the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. The Olympics will, no doubt, return the favor by putting the name Snowbasin on the map.