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Ski Resort Life

Building Rosa Khutor: 2014 Olympics

The Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia are still a few years away. That's good news, because there's still a lot to be done to prepare the resort. Here's an update on the progress, and the latest on the inclusion of halfpipe skiing.

The Sochi Winter Olympics are still three and a half years away, which is good from a skiing standpoint, since the primary competition venue is still under construction and what could be the most electrifying event — halfpipe skiing — has not yet been approved by the International Olympic Committee.

But among those responsible for ensuring the 2014 games don’t embarrass Russia or its proud winter heritage, the Olympics are well under way.

For starters, according to a recent e-mail sent by International Ski Federation (FIS) vice chairman Bernhard Russi, who has designed every Olympic downhill course since 1988, to Roger McCarthy, a consultant who spent two years building the mammoth resort that will host the alpine events in 2014, the Olympic skiing venue is “90 percent complete.”

That’s no small feat given that when McCarthy resigned as co-president of Vail Resorts’ mountain division in 2007 to move to Russia and build Rosa Khutor, there was not a hint of what was to become one of the world’s largest resorts.

Instead, the area looked like it had for much of its civilized life: a massive mountain range towering above a tiny subtropical village called Krasnaya Polyana, where cows and pigs roam the streets unattached; locals grow tulips, fruits, and vegetables and harvest more honey than anywhere in Russia; and where people lived without road access or telephones until two decades ago.

Now, Rosa Khutor’s 5,800 vertical feet are served by three gondolas as well as a six-person, high-speed chairlift that will rise from the shared finish area of all 10 Olympic skiing events.

“It’s a clash of cultures there,” McCarthy said Monday by phone from his home in Whistler.

McCarthy’s tenure as director of strategy and operations at Rosa Khutor ended in November 2008 after a “land-ownership issue” forced the resort’s developers to temporarily shut down the project. But during his time in the Caucasus Mountains, he ski toured extensively and got to know the Rosa Khutor site like few others.

“The avalanches run 4,000 feet,” he said. “That gives you an idea of what you’re dealing with.”

He added: “When you arrive in the valley, you have to tilt your head back just to see the top. It’s so steep.”

With a base elevation of about 2,200 feet and a summit elevation of 8,000 feet, Rosa Khutor is similar to Whistler in the weather and snow consistency (think maritime) it receives — not surprising given that both resorts are about 30 miles from the ocean. McCarthy said he saw it rain at the summit in the middle of winter, though “not often.”

The Caucasus Mountains remain “fundamentally undiscovered by North Americans,” but French skiers have been running helicopter operations in the region for years, McCarthy said. The site for Rosa Khutor, which is aesthetically highlighted by fluted ridges and giant bowls, was selected after a resort-design company scouted 400 square kilometers of mountainous terrain.

The main challenge to building the resort and, on a broader scale, staging the alpine skiing and snowboarding events in 2014, McCarthy said, has been Russia’s lack of a traditional alpine culture.

“Bernhard Russi and I were standing on the men’s downhill course one day, just cutting trees,” he said. “And Bernhard looks at me and says, ‘What about side slippers? We’re going to need a thousand side slippers.’

“It’s not uncommon to get three feet-plus of snow there overnight, so when you’re running the Olympics, you’re gonna have to get that stuff off the course and get back to the hard surface that they wanna race on. And the question is, are there a thousand people in Russia who know how to side slip a slope that’s 40 degrees? And are they gonna want to?”

The slalom venue will be as steep as any in recent Olympic history, McCarthy said, and the men’s downhill course is a monster. “It’s serious — big enough to put three downhill courses on it.”

Despite Russia’s strong tradition in sports like Nordic ski racing and biathlon, the country has little experience staging large-scale alpine skiing events. Still, McCarthy’s time in the country left little doubt as to whether the 2014 Olympics will impress the world.

“It’ll be different from Whistler and Salt Lake City, because in those places you have a ski culture that understands the sport,” he said. “But as I would remind people on a regular basis, the first guy in space was Russian, and he went round and round, he didn’t just go up and down. So you should never underestimate their ability to get things done.”

Halfpipe Skiing update
Meanwhile, on the freestyle front, the push to add halfpipe skiing to the Olympic docket is very alive. The FIS Congress formally proposed incorporating the discipline this spring in a letter to the IOC, along with an alpine nations’ team event and women’s ski jumping. Halfpipe skiing has been contested at the World Championships since 2005.

Jeremy Forster, the director of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s snowboarding and freeride (which includes halfpipe, slopestyle, and ski cross) programs, said he expects a decision from the IOC as early as this fall or, at worst, next spring. He said he has no further clues beyond what is in the public domain.

In advance of the IOC’s decision, Forster and USSA have made some moves to prepare for halfpipe’s possible inclusion in the 2014 games. For the first time, this year’s U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix will include a halfpipe skiing competition at its opening stop, set for Copper Mountain, Colorado, in December.

Halfpipe and slopestyle skiing, as well as ski cross, will also be featured for the first time on USSA’s Revolution Tour, Forster said.

There is still no formal plan to organize a national halfpipe team, nor does Forster know how many pipe skiers the U.S. Ski Team would support. Should the IOC add pipe skiing to its 2014 Olympic lineup, Forster said he would then begin deciding how to select athletes, how to allocate funding, and begin reaching out to potential sponsors. He’d also hire a coach at that time, though he declined to name any potential candidates.

“I wouldn’t say we have a ‘list,’” he said, “but as you know the coaching world is small and I believe we have an idea of who potentially could be a coach at the elite level.”