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Preparing a legend

The Swiss army helps prepare the Lauberhorn course swissinfo.ch

Snow falls from the sky, settles on the mountain and the world's best skiers then race their way down - unfortunately for the organisers of this weekend's classic Lauberhorn race, things are a little bit more complicated than that.

This content was published on January 10, 2002 - 08:19

"It would be nice if it was that simple," organising president Viktor Gertsch agreed with a smile. "But running the Lauberhorn requires a lot of planning. We have a board of directors with eight people on it, which meets two or three times a month throughout the year. On top of that we have two full-time secretaries working all year round."

Preparing the piste

While the board of directors have to wrestle with issues as diverse as ticketing, crowd control and the demands of the media, the biggest amount of time by far is spent on preparing the Lauberhorn piste itself.

"The major part of the organising starts in December when the first snow falls," Gertsch told swissinfo. "We pack that down with our snow cat vehicles but if there's too much natural snow we have to remove it."

No use for natural snow

"The International Ski Federation rules insist that only artificial snow is used for World Cup races," Gertsch explained. "Today's ski edges are so aggressive and put so much pressure on the slopes that natural snow just isn't good enough - it's far too soft. So from mid-December onwards we have up to 30 people working towards the production of a uniformly compact piste."

Lauberhorn race leader Urs Näpfin is the man in overall charge of that task. Speaking to swissinfo at the bottom of the course's steep final passage, Näpfin expressed his satisfaction after months of hard work.

"We started producing the artificial snow in November," Näpfin recalled. "At the same time we began securing the four-metre high security nets to the ground, which itself had to be made ready during the summer. Straight after Christmas we were concentrating on the other safety aspects such as the smaller nets for catching wayward skiers and the crowd fences."

"In the last few weeks and days," Näpfin continued, "we're constantly working on the piste, adding the right amount of water to produce the perfect conditions. At the moment we have around 260 people, most of them from the Swiss army, doing just that."

Longest World Cup race

At almost four and a half kilometres in length the Lauberhorn is the longest World Cup race on the FIS tour and needs a corresponding amount of maintenance by Näpfin and his team, but when you're preparing a professional ski course depth can be just as important a factor as length.

"It's no good just having a piste that is firm on the surface," Näpfin explained. "If the snow is soft lower down you could have all sorts of problems with layers slipping and sliding. To avoid that we have to use special injection instruments which measure the precise consistency and firmness of the snow right the way down to the ground, allowing us to pour in just the right dosage of water."

The high amount of water used on the World Cup piste is clearly evident to anyone who has made their way down the icy Lauberhorn course in the days leading up to the race itself. But while the conditions may be extremely testing for amateur skiers, Näpfin was keen to point out that the ice isn't designed to produce fast times or increase the sense of risk.

Safety in ice

"Quite the opposite is true," Näpfin insisted. "It's actually a question of improving safety by guaranteeing a uniform piste for the racers who come down last. If we didn't work with water to produce an icy piste, the slope would be full of holes after the first ten or 20 skiers had made their way down. In the downhill discipline in particular that would radically increase the element of danger."

Following the tragic accident in Val d'Isere last month which left young Swiss skier Silvano Beltrametti permanently paralysed, the issue of safety in skiing has been frequently discussed in Switzerland. But the man in charge of the Lauberhorn piste insists that safety has always been a major concern for his team.

"Discussions about safety didn't begin with Silvano Beltramettis' tragic accident," Näpfi points out. "We have been working to improve safety for the last ten years. Even before then the Lauberhorn always used the latest material available and we've continued to invest a lot of money in safety.

"In the last two years we have invested SFr 320,000 to buy new nets, build new installations and new material all to have optimal level of security. You can take the number of catch nets we use as an example. In 1986 we had four kilometres of catch nets, today we have 13 kilometres. Our efforts to improve safety certainly didn't just start in the last four weeks."

Watching the weather

No matter how well prepared the piste, and no matter how tight the security measures the one thing that can always undo the months of hard labour is the weather. Proof of that came last year when the Lauberhorn weekend was almost totally obliterated by a thick fog which prevented the two planned downhills from taking place with only the Sunday slalom event going ahead.

After being the principal bearer of bad tidings 12 months ago, the Lauberhorn's resident meteorologist Peter Hinteregger, is hoping to bring happier news this time around.

Last year "terrible"

"Last year was terrible," Hinteregger admitted. "When the weather isn't good I think people forget that I can only make forecasts about what's going to happen, not actually change the weather. I had to keep going around last time asking people not to blame me for what was going on."

Although the high-profile part of Hinteregger's job only comes with the start of the competition weekend, his forecasts are used throughout the winter months to help the Lauberhorn team in their piste preparations. So long as the weather isn't totally dreadful on race day, his short-term predictions can be used to help the race committee decide on any possible postponements or whether they should move the start position.

Unlike last year, Hinteregger is fairly confident that such questions won't arise this weekend.

"It's always hard to make forecasts when you're dealing with just one tiny area," he confesses, "But at the moment three of the five forecast models are predicting a very sunny weekend. Two are suggesting that there could be some snowfall, but right now I think we will have a good day's racing."

"I definitely hope so," he adds with a slightly desperate looking grin.

by Mark Ledsom, Wengen

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