The Inuit famously have at least 50 words for snow. But does that include the Dippin’ Dots kind?
As those in the business of organizing skiing and snowboarding competitions venture farther away from cold-weather climates, they are forced to become more innovative with how to acquire the tools of their trade. Central among them, that fluffy, white stuff.
Take, for example, the Visa Big Air event that was held Friday and Saturday at Suntrust Park, the home of MLB’s Atlanta Braves. Far from being the land of ice and snow, Georgia’s capital bears the nickname “Hotlanta.” December temperatures rarely dip below freezing, hovering between 55-35 degrees. And while the city actually averages an inch of snow a year, that’s not nearly enough to cover the 15-story tall scaffolding that took over the baseball park’s infield, not to mention the landing area that extends deep into the outfield.
So, organizers had to get creative. Like science experiment creative. Cryogenic snow creative.
They turned to a company called Polar Europe, which makes synthetic snow by combining liquid nitrogen, water and compressed air. Snow guns shoot the mixture into tubular tents positioned along the scaffolding, from which it falls onto the track almost like real snow.
“They bring in huge generators that make snow. They basically spit out Dippin’ Dots,” said Colby Stevenson, a Team USA freeskier from Park City who competed in Atlanta. “That’s how I think about it.”
More than 800 tons of the manufactured snow, which is actually called cryogenic snow, was produced for the two-day event. It was packed about a foot deep into the in-run, a 40-degree ramp down which skiers and boarders will build up speeds up to 40 mph before launching themselves spinning and twisting through the air. The majority of the “snow,” however, was applied to the landing hill to cushion the impact on the athletes’ bodies after all those aerial aerobics.
While it might not be as sweet as those more popular pebbles of ice cream — also made with liquid nitrogen — the fake snow can be preferred by athletes over the real stuff. At the very least, they are indifferent about it.
Alex Hall, a Park City resident who competed in the 2018 Olympics in slopestyle skiing, won an X Games big air event in Oslo, Norway, in August. That event, held in what Hall deemed T-shirt weather, also used cryogenic snow.
“Usually it’s pretty icy and you can’t tell what kind of method they use,” Hall said.
The conditions weren’t a problem for him Saturday. Needing almost a perfect score on his final run, he pulled it off perfectly to win the skiing title in Atlanta.
Polar Europe has brought cryogenic snow to Oracle Park in San Francisco, Barcelona and the beaches of Jamaica, among other locations. The event in Atlanta arose after U.S. Ski & Snowboard earlier this year made a commitment to bring big air events to the masses — including those who don’t own a single down-filled jacket. It will host one city big air event each season leading into the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, when big air skiing will make its debut. (Big air snowboarding debuted at the 2018 Olympics).
“Our snow has the same characteristics as natural snow,” Sijtze Binksma, the operations manager for Polar Europe said in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune. “Athletes have loads of grip on our snow, which is very important.”
Could cryogenic snow then be the answer for ski resorts in low-snow years? When Utah hosts its next Winter Olympics, could it be a band-aid for competition sites like Solider Hollow, which at an elevation of 5,600 feet could see temperatures too warm for snow, both natural and manmade.
For one, the cost is exorbitant. The snowmaking carried out at resorts across Utah during the winter, which relies on naturally cold temperatures instead of liquid nitrogen to freeze the water, costs about $5 per cubic meter. In contrast, cryogenic snow costs at least $100 per cubic meter, according to a report published in 1999 by Snowtech, the Australian company credited for first widely employing liquid nitrogen in making snow. If it’s cold enough, cryogenic snow can be laid atop other forms of snow to cut costs.
If the price tag isn’t enough, both Stevenson and Hall pointed to another deterrent: Though it looks like snow and feels like snow, cryogenic snow is not actually snow. So, while they don’t mind it while jumping, it wouldn’t be at the top of their list of what they’d want to carve through on a day off.
“You can barely call it skiing,” Hall said of big air events like the one in Atlanta. “You’re just going straight into the jump, doing our jump and landing. So, aerial skiing isn’t comparable to real skiing.”
Nonetheless, Stevenson, who is studying business at Westminster College, said he could see a day when the term cryogenic snow becomes part of every skier’s lexicon. It may just be a matter of time.
“Four, maybe five years ago they would make snow and had to truck it in from the mountains. It was more time-consuming,” Stevenson said. “They do a good job of making snow and having it last through the event. It’s pretty crazy.”