Heading into the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, there were many predictions of trouble — possible terrorism, incomplete construction, unsold tickets and not enough snow. Well, you can take that last item off the list.
Skiers zip by on a practice run at the Rosa Khutor alpine ski course in Russia with not a cloud in the sky above them. You can't hear the skis, though, because there's a snow-making machine blasting water into the cool, dry air. It mists down onto the ground below in fine ice particles: man-made snow.
SMI Snowmakers, a Michigan-based company, designed and operates the snow-making system used at the Sochi Games. This machine, called the Super Pole Cat, is a fully automated fan, pump and water-spraying unit up on a pole towering over the mountainside.
It has a lot of company; SMI put in more than 400 machines and two man-made lakes to draw water from. It was one giant insurance policy to make sure there was snow on the mountains, and that events could go ahead even if there wasn't much natural snow.
"You're in the mountains, so you play with Mother Nature, and you deal with what she's giving you," says SMI project manager Ian Honey. "The system is designed around having extremely marginal conditions, not normal conditions, but extremely marginal conditions."
This time last year, it was warm and raining up on the slopes. But conditions are good now, Honey says — so good that they are able to make snow in the middle of the day instead of just in the cold of night. He says that on average the mountain has about 5 feet of man-made snow, plus some natural snow and stockpiled snow from last year spread on the slopes as a base. He says they've pumped a little more than 970 cubic meters of water, which is 1.6 million cubic meters of snow.
"It was 920, I believe, football fields, with a foot of snow over them," he says.
He did the math while watching the Super Bowl, and they're still pumping it out to keep the most heavily trafficked parts of the slopes fresh. Honey moved to Sochi for this project four years ago.
"She's coming to full fruition," he says. "It's like having a child grow up and go away, you know. It's good."
He says the only thing that would make him nervous now is a monsoonal rain event — and he says that isn't happening.