Have you ever watched downhill skiing on television and caught the flash of a blue jacket running out of frame as the racer gracefully (or recklessly, depending on your take) carves down the slope?
If so, you’ve probably caught a rare glimpse of the elusive course crew.
The course crew member is a hardy species, sticking it out through blizzards, gale-force winds, freezing temperatures, rain and – in extreme circumstances – the occasional sunny day.
These individuals are responsible for creating the environment of a ski race. More often than not, they do it for nothing more than some heartfelt thanks and their love of the sport.
Ski courses don’t make themselves. If this comes as a surprise, you should pull up the archival footage of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and check out the antics of the course crew that worked on Cypress Mountain.
Races must go on, even if that means trucking in snow which you then use a helicopter to dump all over the mountain.
For this year’s Arctic Winter Games, the course crew has already been hard at work to create the best race possible for the athletes travelling from across the Circumpolar North to compete.
Crew chiefs were already putting plans and teams in place throughout the fall and making sure the volunteers were trained up and ready to go.
Although the experiences of this team range from Olympics, World Cups, territorial championships and local races, there is always more to learn.
Team members took part in level one and two officials’ courses last fall, in preparation for creating the perfect race come March (Mother Nature permitting, of course).
So what do those elusive blue jackets trying to stay clear of the television screens so you have an unimpeded view of the action actually do, you ask?
Well, here’s a quick snapshot of the action that takes place behind the action.
As early as the weekend of February 25-26, teams were arriving at Dan’s Descent at Mount Sima to start staging the b-netting.
B-netting is the essential safety system of a ski course. This blue safety net ensures that racers slow down when they crash, which usually keeps them from suffering major injury.
For the Arctic Winter Games, 2.5 km of b-netting will arrive in Whitehorse. A snowcat will deliver huge piles of netting to staging points along the mountain.
From these zones course crew members on skis, snowboards, and on foot will carry b-net down the mountain to its final location to be installed.
B-net comes in tightly-rolled bundles that are unwieldy to transport at the best of times – they tend to unravel slightly, making them several metres long, with the uncanny ability to match the circumference of an individual’s arm span almost exactly.
A bundle can also weigh up to 60 pounds.
Once crew members have manhandled these blue bundles to their resting places on the hill they unfurl them and set them in place.
This is where the fun begins – if you happen to be the lucky wielder of the snow drill. If you don’t have control of the snow drill and instead are in charge of continuing to manhandle b-nets, it’s not quite as exciting.
The lucky snow drill wielders punch holes along the course that the supporting poles of the b-net can be rammed into, eventually leading to the entire race course being fenced in.
As long as the snow conditions are perfect, those snow drill wielders have a pretty easy job. Of course Mother Nature often has a sick sense of humour when it comes to things like this, so often the snow conditions are not perfect.
Sometimes the snow is too sugary and holes fill in faster than you can drill them. Other times it’s too wet and slushy. And sometimes, if it’s rock hard and frozen, there’s little or no leeway for a hole that’s slightly off in its drill orientation.
Once the b-netting has been installed, the course crew needs to groom and prepare the slope, then set the actual course (those pretty blue and red poles you see the racers whiz by on TV).
On race day itself, the course crew keeps the course running. Inclement weather keeps them busy as bees.
If you look closely at that blur on your screen you’ll probably notice a rake in one hand and a gate judge card in the other. The rakes are used to keep the course in tip top shape so that all racers have equal conditions when they compete.
At the same time, the course crew members keep an eye on the gates (those pretty poles) to make sure no racer misses a gate.
They do all of this while dodging camera angles to make sure you have an unimpeded view of the action while you’re at home, warm and comfortable.
And once the race is finished and switch off your set and make yourself a snack, they keep working.
They take down the course so that it can be groomed for the next day’s competition, then re-set it for the next races.
Who knew a little blue blur could do so much?
Amber Church is a painter, writer and sports enthusiast. You can reach her at [email protected].