At Vancouver Olympics, straw battles sun, rain

With the Winter Games taking place so close to sea level, event organizers at Cypress Mountain are using bales of straw to lessen the amount of snow they need.

With snow at a premium, Olympics organizers at one Vancouver, B.C., venue are using bales of straw to augment the white stuff as they construct runs for snowboarding, freestyle skiing, and other events.

Although there is plenty of powder at Whistler, B.C., where many of the skiing and sledding events take place, a combination of rain and unseasonably warm temperatures have left Cypress Mountain with less snow had been anticipated.

Olympics officials have taken a number of steps to preserve snow on the mountain and ensure that they have enough powder to make it through the games. Earlier this month, the alpine skiing runs at Cypress Mountain were closed to the public.

More recently, workers have been trucking down snow from higher elevations and have started using the straw bales to serve as foundational elements for the ski cross and snowboard cross events. Snow will eventually be used to cover the straw.

"That saves us an enormous amount of snow," said Tim Gayda, vice president of sport for the Vancouver Organizing Committee.

Some 800 of the 1,000-pound bales have been put in place by helicopter, while 250 more have been brought in through other means.

"We have been very, very busy," Gayda said, speaking to reporters Thursday.

Organizers say they have no intention of moving the events from Cypress Mountain and said "exorbitant amounts" of snow at the top of the mountain ensure there will be enough powder even if weather conditions don't improve.

Right now there are about three meters (almost 10 feet) of snow at the higher elevations of Cypress. Organizers are pushing that snow, as needed, down the road and then trucking it to various parts of the competition venues. A team of 45 people have used eight "snowcats" and a fleet of more than two dozen dump truck to move more than 300 truckloads of snow.

"We're not really counting on mother nature coming back and helping us a whole lot," Gayda said. "If the situation improves, it just makes our life a whole lot easier."

Finally, organizers also have the option of using chemicals that reduce moisture and harden the ice. At Cypress, they have on the ready a stockpile of a chemical fertilizer that could improve the snowboard venue if competition-day conditions aren't what they need to be.

"That is kind of a last resort for us," Gayda said.

The first athletes arrive to prepare on February 5, with the games kicking off the following week. Officials of the IOC and International Ski Federation say they are confident Cypress will be ready.

Ski federation race director Marcel Looze said in a statement that he "is confident that with the current amount of snow on the mountain, and the snow saving measures that have been taken, VANOC will be able to create a world-class venue for our snowboard events."

This is the first in a series of stories looking at the technology and preparation that goes into the Winter Olympic Games. CNET's Ina Fried is covering that topic from various angles and will be in Vancouver for the games, which start next month.

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    During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried has changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley. These days, most of her attention is focused on Microsoft. E-mail Ina.

     

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