Gallery: Making Sense Of The Snow
The relatively warm and wet weather that is causing concern for organizers and athletes on the eve of the Winter Olympics comes as no surprise to American Zach Caldwell.
The cross-country-ski technician has spent 2 1/2 winters at and around the Olympic course near Whistler, British Columbia, quietly taking stock of the snow and weather conditions. Caldwell has been trying to figure out the best way to grind the undersides of cross-country skis so that Americans ski fast — even in the worst conditions for speed.
Blake Jorgenson/Aurora for NPR
Zach Caldwell uses a piece of plastic to clean the grinding stone that embeds patterns on cross-country skis.
Blake Jorgenson/Aurora for NPR
The grinds are etched by a diamond-cutting tool that cuts a nearly invisible pattern of angled lines on the bottom of a ski. But the best patterns to use depend on the weather.
In conducting their research, Caldwell and an assistant have tested more than 6,000 combinations of grinds and skis and snow and weather conditions. It's been an exhaustive search for the perfect patterns to fit the kinds of conditions cross-country athletes are likely to encounter at this specific winter games.
No other Olympic team, including the home-snow Canadians, has been testing and grinding on location for so long, Caldwell says.
"In my experience, it's entirely unique. Here we have the opportunity to be very specific," Caldwell says. "Because here, the [grinding machine] is close enough to the venue that we can be grinding skis the night before a race, we have the ability to respond in an extremely specific way to the conditions that are coming."
Caldwell ended up near the Olympic cross-country venue when his wife became a coach of a Canadian youth ski-training program. He left a thriving ski-grinding business in Vermont, trucked his $75,000 grinder to their new home in Squamish, British Columbia, and approached the U.S. ski team — which provided about $60,000, a donated pickup truck and a volunteer to help with the testing.
All that gives the American skiers some home-field advantage in one of the world's most maddening climates for skiing.
"If you were in an environment where the prevailing storm system is incredibly moisture-laden and then passes over an ice field and crystallizes to a very, very sharp level and then falls into the 100 percent humidity near-freezing conditions, you have a very challenging situation, where there's a lot of moisture and very sharp, crystalline snow," Caldwell says.
And those are the conditions he is dealing with in Whistler.
The sharp snow crystals tend to grab skis that glide over them, and the heavy moisture creates friction between ski and snow. The right patterns ground into the base of a ski can dissipate the gripping effect of the crystals and moisture, allowing the skier to glide more quickly.
Finding the right patterns is elusive because the conditions in this marine climate change quickly and can mix sun, rain and snow — all at the same course on the same day.
"I see a lot of confused faces around here, and I know I spent the first year here really making skis slow. The snow acts in ways that are really contrary to expectation," Caldwell says. "Frankly, we get our butts kicked if we don't learn the snow that's local to the area."
'The Difference Between 15th Place And First Place'
To learn the snow and the response of different grinds, Caldwell and ski tester Eric Nielsen set up speed tests on a snowy hill in Whistler. That effort is worth it, Caldwell says, because the right grind on the right skis on the right skier in the right conditions can shave significant time over the course of a race.
"I'm talking about the difference between 15th place and first place," Caldwell says. "In the right conditions ... there will definitely be people taken off the podium because their skis aren't good. No one's going to win the race because of the skis, but there are people that are gonna lose because their skis are bad."
And the U.S. Nordic ski team wants every edge it can get. The team hopes to win the first American medals in the sport in 36 years. Given recent World Cup success for several skiers, cross-country skiing is considered one of the possible breakthrough sports for the U.S. team.