The Stifel Palisades Men’s FIS World Cup will see 112 skiers from around the world race down Red Dog run at Palisades Tahoe this weekend, on Feb. 24 and 25. But behind the scenes, the grooming and snowmaking departments have been hard at work for weeks getting the racecourse and training run ready. Their goal is singular — to create a smooth, hard, icy surface for the athletes, no small feat on a mountain that can see multiple feet of snow fall in one storm. This mission takes up so much time that for the past two years, Palisades has brought in a special grooming crew from outside the area to help build the course.

COURSE BUILDERS: Palisades Snowmaking Manager Evan Nielsen (left) and Brendan Gibbons, Palisades director of snow surfaces, stand in front of one of the mountain’s snowmaking guns. The pair has been hard at work building the Red Dog racecourse for the world cup this weekend. Photo by Jared Alden/Moonshine Ink

“We will do whatever is necessary to pull the event off and to give them [the athletes] the surface they need, and we will do it as long as necessary,” said Brendan Gibbons, director of snow surfaces for both the Palisades and Alpine sides of the resort.

The four groomers Gibbons brought in specifically for world cup prep started arriving in mid-January. Three of them are from Colorado and have been grooming operators at the Birds of Prey FIS Ski World Cup at Beaver Creek for many years, and came out to Palisades last year to build the world cup course. A new addition to the grooming team this year is from Alta Ski Area. Gibbons also dedicates two of his groomers to the world cup team for a total of six.

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Palisades learned an important lesson after hosting the 2017 Women’s FIS Ski World Cup without outside help — it was extremely challenging to prep the racecourse and groom the rest of the mountain for normal operations.

MAKING ICE: The snowmaking department has 3,000 feet of hose to water the Red Dog racecourse and Exhibition training run to create the ice-skating rink-like surface the athletes want. Photo courtesy Palisades Tahoe

“The world cup to me is something that happens in addition to our other job,” Gibbons said. “The biggest reason I bring in outside operators is that it’s so time consuming. If we did this in house, at least 40% of the mountain would be neglected.”

The Palisades World Cup consists of two events — the men’s slalom and giant slalom, both on Dog Leg and Red Dog Face. Mikaela Shiffrin, considered one of the greatest alpine skiers of all time, was at the world cup in 2017 and described the course as “one of, if not the toughest” course venues on the women’s world cup circuit, according to Palisades’ website.

Unlike Beaver Creek, Palisades does not close the Red Dog course or Exhibition training run to the public because they want skiers to ski the runs in order to change the crystallization of the snow and take air out of the snow, which is one step in getting a firm surface. They only close those runs if they are doing a specific task, like watering.

The first step in building the course is to make sure there is enough snow for the race surface. According to Gibbons, they need 18 inches of snow to run the event in order to place the gates and fences, but prefer about 3 feet. This year, about 90% of the snow on the Red Dog run is manmade snow.

Water also plays a big role in creating the course. The snowmaking team waters the run, much like a farmer watering the soil, to create an ice-like surface for the athletes. Last year, Palisades used almost 1 million gallons of water between the Red Dog course and Exhibition training run, and will use roughly the same amount this year over the course of only 5 days.

“I joke with anyone that if I could put a hockey Zamboni on a winch and drop it down Dog Leg, that’s what they [athletes] want — flat and hard, scary hard, the exact opposite of what traditional Tahoe Basin skiers want,” said Evan Nielsen, snowmaking manager on the Palisades side.

The snowmaking team has 3,000 feet of hose on hand for watering, which requires 20 to 30 people hauling hose to reach parts of Dog Leg that doesn’t have snowmaking guns.

“There are 13 acres of ‘lawn’ on Red Dog,” Nielsen said. “We are essentially running a sprinkler system.”

The groomers’ job is to ensure all the snow bonds to create one surface. First they churn up the snow and open the surface, then expose it to watering so it will freeze. The groomers till the surface three different times, then lay the corduroy over the snow to lock in the moisture “and evolve it into the ice-rink-quality surface that the racers need,” Nielsen said.

“We are looking for that ice, the hard layer,” said Brad “Sparky” Munz, one of the operators from Colorado brought in for the Palisades World Cup. He has worked on Birds of Prey since 2005, and was a groomer operator for the Beijing Winter Olympics. “We eat up as much snow as we can with tillers after watering. Those will be long nights.”

Last year, when it dumped 3 feet of snow prior to the start of the event, the groomers had to try to strip the snow off the course to get back down to the race surface. This presented a massive challenge. Because snowcats were no longer allowed on the racecourse right before the event, a team of volunteers equipped with headlamps went up the Red Dog lift at 3 a.m. two nights in a row to snowblow and slideslip (when skiers slide horizontally down the hill) snow off the course so the snowcats could then blow the snow up and over the nets. Grooming operators were working 15-hour shifts right up until the event and had to abandon the Exhibition training run to focus all their energy and time on the racecourse.

“It took 13 hours to strip the snow last year and I don’t think we even got it all down to the race surface in some spots,” Munz said. “I am planning on it not snowing before the race this year. I want to see blue skies 4 days before the race.”

CORNROWS: Last year, with nonstop snow falling on the course, the groomer operators had to create 12- to 18-inch-deep cornrows of snow in order to expose more surface area to the air. This allows snow crystallization to come up to the surface and watering to penetrate deeper. Then they rolled all the snow back together to achieve their goal of creating one thick layer of snow for the racecourse. They will do it again this year but with shallower cornrows. Photo courtesy Palisades Tahoe

This year has Munz has not had to work quite as long hours as in 2023. Yet he still has been working 7 days a week, 10 hours a day, since he arrived at Palisades on Jan. 25. He has had 2 days off.

Despite the long hours, everyone interviewed said they enjoy working on these elite events.

“It’s one of the more exciting things I have worked on,” Gibbons said. “As hard work as it is and as difficult as it seems at times, I feel very privileged to be a part of it.”

Nielsen agrees.

“It’s a lot of work on top of our current jobs of producing skier services for the resort especially on a low snow year,” he said. “But being involved in a nationally televised event, to know we had a part in it, is very rewarding.”

Author

  • Melissa Siig

    Melissa Siig ditched international politics in Washington, D.C. in 2001 to move to Tahoe, where she quickly found her true calling — journalism. She has written for regional and national publications, and enjoys writing about community issues and quirky human interest stories. When not at her keyboard, she is busy wrangling her three children, co-running Tahoe Art Haus & Cinema, or playing outside.

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