European skiers are preparing for what they expect to be an emotional first reunion with the avalanche-damaged racecourse in Austria.
Nearly three weeks after a massive snowstorm crushed a hotel and left 24 people missing, snow reached the venue on Monday. Several big categories of French and German skiers have trained there for major slalom races in training, and many more will be there for World Cup races this week and next week.
World Cup race director Markus Schaeffer said on Tuesday that the race landscape in Puchheim, Austria, has been changed, even though the area still has plenty of natural snow.
For example, speed and track huts used by skiers to find details about the run they will be competing on are now permanently located to the west of the course, near a lane that skiers can drive to.
The thousands of spectators who usually watch slalom and giant slalom races on Friday and Saturday won’t have to travel far if they want to see the German and Austrian athletes in action. That area is nearby, and because spectators won’t be traveling there, Schaeffer said the doping testing process is also being reduced.
One of the things many skiers are talking about is the partial slope remains almost entirely empty, meaning the fastest racers must weave across sections that are empty.
It was estimated on Monday that nearly 6 meters (20 feet) of natural snow remained on the summit of the course.
In addition to the snow-shrouded hotel on the mountainside, two other cottages and a camper van have been flattened by the avalanche and will probably be condemned.
Schaeffer said he wouldn’t enter his racers into many races on the current layout, as the course in effect has only part of the piste available and he isn’t certain where it will finish.
Austrian investigators have suggested that German and Austrian skiers who left the partially paralyzed hotel may have had a hand in the disaster. Both countries have opened independent investigations.
“We are very sad that the area won’t be available to us, in particular the finishing line where we have prepared a number of races,” Schaeffer said. “For us, the concentration on other skiing events also leaves us a bit empty.”
He said skiers don’t have to fly their gear to the course, which could be a problem for those who still hope to qualify for their national team, as the Alpine federation employs them to store their equipment.
“In this sense it is certainly difficult for us to calculate the financial impact of this event because for us there are three parts of preparation in the run. The first, at the racetrack, is mentally incredibly tough to do,” Schaeffer said. “For us, it’s an emotional event.”
For Germans, there’s no disputing the emotional aspect.
“It has been difficult for us for weeks because we know that the places that we use are completely empty, even the accommodation which was destroyed. We still need to reconcile this because we are building the race track again, so we know that the people who used these areas are not there anymore,” said Nadine Baumgarten, head of Germany’s Alpine team.
Also preparing the slope is the Swiss team, which has taken over the responsibilities of the International Ski Federation in the wake of the disaster.
Vitus Homakov, Swiss team head coach, said it remains to be seen whether skiing starts can start as normal on Friday morning because he’s not sure if Austrian police will allow it.
“That’s the main question,” Homakov said. “They say it’s ready, but we don’t know. We don’t know how things are being dealt with. We are waiting for a final decision from the police.”