How to host a ski event near a desert
YANQING, China – Slopes wind through jagged cliffs on the outskirts of a desert. Massive rock walls loom on either side. Snow rarely falls, but the wind often swirls, and neither tourists nor residents ever ski here.
But the Olympians are doing it now, because when China won the right to host these Winter Games, it embarked on a three-year project to build the National Alpine Skiing Center “from scratch”.
They were once uninhabited “steep mountain ridges”, as explained by Li Changzhou, deputy general manager of Beijing Enterprises Group, owner and builder. Everything around it still is. Shrub trees and a barren hill line the road that winds up Xiaohaituo Mountain. Everything outside the room is a shade of brown.
But then there are thin white ribbons, visible from airplanes and miles away, stark proof that the Olympics have ventured outside their natural habitat.
Beijing built them because it had no other choice. He made a bid for the 2022 Games without an Olympic-standard alpine station. So, shortly after winning a vote from the International Olympic Committee in 2015, he began blasting massive chunks of his highest mountain near the Great Wall in this suburban district of Yanqing. He hired dozens of foreign experts to turn rough terrain into European-style tracks. Alpine legend Bernhard Russi designed them. American cowboy Tom Johnston manicured them.
But first, this water-poor region had to provide him with snow.
So, the local authorities began to search far and wide for the natural resources to create it.
Nowadays, most international alpine ski competitions require snowmaking. The Beijing Olympics operation, however, is particularly intensive. China, working with leading artificial snow supplier TechnoAlpin, has built kilometer-long pipeline networks to connect reservoirs outside Yanqing to another reservoir on Xiaohaituo Mountain. This small reservoir stores the water used to cover the Olympic slopes. Pumps and hundreds of snow cannons then turn it into the white surface you’ll see on TV.
The skiers who will use it really appreciate it. Artificial snow, as American star Mikaela Shiffrin said on Friday, is “grippy” and “aggressive”.
The setting, however, looks and feels odd.
The IOC had warned that this would be the case. A bid evaluation report explained a long time ago that “there could be no snow outside the racecourse, especially in Yanqing, which has an impact on the visual perception of snow cover.” .
The organizers apparently sought to address these concerns. The trees were planted in rigid and uniform rows, with the aim of giving a forest touch to the landscape. The snow cannons tried to dress some of them in white. The Beijing Organizing Committee once published renderings depicting the Olympic site as a recreation of the European Alps.
The reality is quite different. Small patches of remnant snow – possibly fake, possibly real – line some sections of the mountainside. The rest looks dry and dead.
On the other side of these mountains is the Gobi, the sixth largest desert in the world, and why none of this is surprising. The climate is quite cold. But it’s dry. The vegetation is dried out. Forecasts suggest that snow could arrive next weekend. But far from enough to change the visuals.
The most important element, on the contrary, will continue to be the wind. High-speed gusts postponed Sunday’s men’s downhill, a day after a training session was also canceled.
“I think there will always be wind,” American skier Bryce Bennett said on Sunday. “That’s how this place is.”