Snow stores keeping Winter Olympics on track
A man holds artificial snow in Ramsau am Dachstein on January 8, 2014 - by Alexander Klein
Now try storing a mound of snow over the summer, when it's 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) outside.
Fears that Sochi, which hosts the Winter Olympics on February 7-23, could lack sufficient powder for the mountain events due to its mild climate, prompted a massive effort to ensure snow ahead of the Games.
And one of the more baffling methods is snow conservation.
The idea is simple: make a pile of snow and keep it until next winter.
In practice, it's a little more complex.
Ramsau am Dachstein, which hosted nordic combined World Cup races last month, attempted it for the first time this year -- with great success.
Some 5,000 cubic metres (176,500 cubic feet) of artificial snow were piled high in a corner of the valley in February, covered with 20-30 centimetres (8-12 inches) of wood chips and two layers of foil -- to act as insulation and protect from rain and sun.
By November, over 4,000 cubic metres -- or 400 truckloads -- of snow remained, enough to make a two- or three-kilometre (1.2- or 1.9-mile) cross-country track.
"It's a safety net, because there are good winters where you don't need it, everything's great. But there are also poor winters," Elias Walser, responsible for the Ramsau project, told AFP.
And when major sports events beckon, "everyone's nervous, there's a lot of money invested... and you have to guarantee (a race)."
Snow cannons require cold temperatures to operate effectively.
Stored snow on the other hand is more economical and more environmentally friendly: the snow can be produced when the weather is coldest at a fraction of the cost and using less power, and then just set aside.
In Ramsau, the 4,000 cubic metres cost about 16,000-20,000 euros ($22,000-27,000), Walser said.
The key is to produce very dry artificial snow, which will maintain its consistency, whereas natural powder would melt and turn into ice.
Thanks to the layers of insulation, Ramsau's snow even survived temperatures surpassing 30 degrees at 1,135 metres (3,723 feet) altitude last summer.
In neighbouring Germany, Klingenthal, which hosted the start of the ski jumping World Cup in November, also stored thousands of cubic metres of snow before the winter.
"Without this snow depot, it would have been impossible to hold the competition," Marcus Stark, head of the organising committee, told AFP.
Reviews from athletes have been generally positive, a good sign for Sochi.
"The snow conditions weren't any different to now," said Achim Walcher, an Austrian ex-Olympic cross-country skier who tested the Ramsau track.
"It was just normal artificial snow, it kept really well over the summer and it was perfect for skiing."
Ski jumping World Cup leader Kamil Stoch also landed on "old snow" in Klingenthal without any problem.
"Snow is snow. It doesn't make any difference for us," he told AFP.
"Of course it's nicer if it's normal artificial snow, hard and with good grip," said ski jumping Olympic champion Thomas Morgenstern.
"But actually, we couldn't care less what we land on."
Ramsau and Klingenthal already plan new depots for next season.
The woodchips and foil can be re-used and, theoretically, so could the old snow, which still lies under Ramsau's cross-country course.
"It could definitely be recycled 10 times in a row," said Walser.
In 2010, Vancouver faced a last-minute lack of snow and scrambled to truck more in for the Olympics.
Sochi, with almost 500,000 cubic meters reportedly stored for use in February, looks ready -- cold weather or not.