Cypress courses lush with snow, but muddy on the fringes

VANCOUVER — A quick glance at the courses on Cypress Mountain reveals the white lushness of a primed-and-ready Olympic freestyle and snowboard run.

A bucket of snow is air lifted to the halfpipe snowboarding venue on Cyrpess Mountain in West Vancouver

A bucket of snow is air lifted to the halfpipe snowboarding venue on Cyrpess Mountain in West Vancouver

VANCOUVER — A quick glance at the courses on Cypress Mountain reveals the white lushness of a primed-and-ready Olympic freestyle and snowboard run.

A second glance, though, shows the brown on the fringes — the exposed mud, the places where any snow has been picked up and moved onto the field of play.

The thumping sound of helicopters ferrying in snow from as far away as Yak Peak, about two hours east of Vancouver off the Coquihalla highway, filled the air Tuesday.

It was the first day reporters were allowed on the West Vancouver mountain since Jan. 13 when it was closed due to concerns about the lack of snow.

It’s a good thing, too. Things apparently didn’t go so well Monday, the first training on the mountain since the closure.

“I think (Monday) was really hard for everyone,” said Canadian mogulist and Olympic medal hopeful Alexandre Bilodeau.

“I think everyone was agreeing on (the session being) the worst mogul training in moguls history.”

A day later, and with work continuing around the clock, Bilodeau said the course was “day and night.”

Crews have been furiously moving snow from other parts of Cypress, trucking snow and flying snow. They’ve been piling the precious stuff on top of a foundation of hay — a move organizers and ski officials say isn’t all that unusual for a Games

Dick Vollet, vice-president of mountain operations for the Vancouver organizing committee, said things are going well.

“We’re quite happy with where we are, given that we are fighting Mother Nature and sometimes she’s not so forgiving,” said Vollet.

Olympic organizers have maintained outward calm and the International Olympic Committee has taken it as a given that the venue will be ready.

Still, it’s been one of the main topics of questioning by international and domestic media at the flurry of pre-Games news conferences this week.

Olympic officials announced Saturday that in order to save snow, they would scale back training time for athletes at the venue.

According to Tuesday’s forecast from Environment Canada, Cypress Mountain will get some flurries on Wednesday, though rain is predicted to return for the rest of the week.

“We had a good freeze last night,” said Vollet. “The temperatures went down last night so that really helped us, helped the field of play. And again, we’re hoping Mother Nature continues to co-operate and keep freezing at night so we can maintain what we have.”

Bilodeau, who won the overall World Cup moguls crown in 2009, said the improved course was great news, but he worried the improvements would be washed away before his gold-medal run Feb. 14.

“That course won’t hold until Sunday, that’s for sure,” he said. “We’re in Cypress so God knows what will happen.”

John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver organizing committee, known as VANOC, hinted the issue is causing him some anxiety as well.

During a breakfast meeting with reporters Tuesday, he said he awoke at 4 a.m. and went outside on his deck to check the weather.

He was pleased.

“It was zero and I thought ‘God has stopped playing chicken with us,”’ Furlong said. “Hopefully that will last a few days and our team will get a break.”

Dave Cobb, VANOC’s man in charge of the minute-by-minute details of the Games, said the fact that most of the 2010 venues were completed almost two years ago has allowed organizers to focus all of their energy on operational problems like the lack of snow on Cypress.

Last month was one of the warmest Januarys on record in Vancouver.

Cobb said one advantage Vancouver organizers have over other Games is that most of the buildings and venues have been completed for two years, meaning all of their efforts can be focused on operational problems like bringing snow to Cypress Mountain.

“It’s almost like going into an exam. You want to study everything you can possible study and prepare and when the day comes you’ve done everything you can do. So we’re feeling pretty good.”

Preoccupation with the snow, or lack of it, can be heard in casual conversations between people standing in the lineups at the superstore selling Olympic merchandise to the dignitaries who are starting to turn up in advance of Friday’s opening ceremonies.

Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean was in the athletes village Tuesday to announce that an art installation with the same images as are on the Olympic medals would be auctioned off to raise money for Haitian earthquake relief.

She also stopped to chat with some of the athletes in the dining hall.

“I tried to bring as much snow as I could with me,” Jean told women’s hockey team captain Hayley Wickenheiser.

Tuesday was also the first day reporters and members of the International Olympic Committee got a look at the Vancouver athletes’ village.

IOC president Jacques Rogge said he’s been told the Vancouver and Whistler villages are the best people have ever seen and he declared the Vancouver site “wonderful.”

“Everything that I have seen is really outstanding,” he said, before heading off to his own room at the village.

“It’s a prime location, a good-quality building, a lot of comfort for the athletes.”