By Gavin Kentch
With just over a week to go until the first marathon event of the 2017 American Birkebeiner, race officials are measuring ice thickness on Lake Hayward, groomers are taking protective action, and 13,000 skiers around the country are becoming amateur meteorologists.
First, the facts. The 29-kilometer Kortelopet race is currently scheduled for next Friday, Feb. 24. The 15 k Prince Haakon is set for that afternoon. The main event, the 44th American Birkebeiner, a 50 k freestyle or 55 k classic point-to-point race from Cable to Hayward, starts at 8:15 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25.
The Birkie trail “is currently in good condition with a 4-8 [inch] solid base,” Nancy Knutson, marketing and communications director at the Birkie, wrote to FasterSkier on Thursday afternoon. (That’s closer to eight inches north of OO, at roughly the midway point of the trail, and closer to four inches at points south, Birkie officials wrote on Facebook earlier this week.) The entire Birkie trail closes to skiers effective midnight tonight until further notice. Lake ice at the end of the course is currently a healthy 16 to 20 inches.
Oh, and the weather is going to get somewhat warm between now and race day.
Here’s the extended forecast for Cable from the Weather Underground site:
Here’s the comparable forecast for Hayward from the ECMWF European model, showing predicted weather and precipitation for the afternoon of each day:
While forecasts that far in advance are notoriously unreliable, skiers nonetheless have good reason to be concerned about the potential viability of racing in northern Wisconsin on either or both of next Thursday or Friday.
“Hayward, we have a problem” Birkie aficionado Ari Ofsevit titled a post on his blog on Wednesday of this week. (Ofsevit’s blog, http://birkieguide.com/, promises to be required reading over the next week. Ofsevit is an enthusiastic elite-wave skier and Birkie supporter whose site has no official affiliation with the race.)
Ofsevit explained some of his predictions, and the models he was looking at, in a Thursday email to FasterSkier. “It’s going to be real warm,” he wrote. “There’s some base, but it’s not as much as most years.” He continued, “I fear for south-facing hills. It’s still better than rain, though. That’s what sunk the Birkie in 2000: two-foot deep puddles at low points on the trail.”
Summarizing hours spent poring over weather models, Ofsevit wrote, “The good news: the models have a strong signal for a snowstorm next Friday. 6 of the past 8 model runs have shown a strong (6″+) snowstorm next Thursday into Friday. That would be nothing short of a miracle. This will be what to watch.”
So what does he predict? “All in all, I’d say there’s a 40% chance that there’s enough snow on the course for a full race, and a 60% chance there’s enough at least to OO (and maybe back). I think there’s a 50% chance that there’s a snowstorm on Friday. Assuming these are independent (that warmth doesn’t mean snow or not) there’s a 20% chance the race is canceled, a 10% chance the race is significantly shortened and a 70% chance the race is able to run the full course. This is mostly dependent on the snowstorm. And I’m pulling these numbers out of my behind.”
For those of you wanting to play with the data yourselves, Ofsevit explains that “there are a lot” of weather models out there. “The three big ones are the GFS (American model), ECMWF (European model) and CMC (Canadian model) which go out 10-16 days. The GFS and CMC have output here. The Euro is much more proprietary, but you can see model output here. They come out twice a day (4x per day for the GFS) and I’ll be tracking them very frequently in the next week.”
Ofsevit promises frequent updates on this topic over the next week.
Speaking on behalf of the Birkie, Knutson wrote that, “With warmer weather forecast for the coming days, we’re continually monitoring conditions and taking necessary actions to preserve the trail as best we can for race week.” The closure of the entire Birkie Trail at midnight tonight is the most obvious such response. (The Birkie Ridge loop trails will remain open, as well as myriad other trails in the greater Cable area. Those trails are not hoping to host thousands of skiers next week.)
As of Thursday afternoon, race officials “have not made any changes to our Birkie Week plans,” Knutson wrote. But they are “discussing possible contingencies should they be needed. There are any number of contingencies potentially in play depending on what situation, if any, presents itself. For now, it’s full steam ahead!”
(Ofsevit has speculated about alternate possibilities, including a scenario in which “the trail will be skiable north of OO and not to the south. The new Classic trail gives the option of turning the race back at OO and finishing it in Cable, although this would be operationally difficult, it may be an option. We’d certainly miss out on the Hayward finish, but if it’s not skiable and the ice isn’t safe.”)
So what’s next? Knutson concluded, “As always, the safety of our participants is first and foremost in our minds, followed by our goal of creating the best possible participant experience for all. … We hope Mother nature has good things in store for us and we will address changing weather conditions and what that means to Birkie events, if anything, as Birkie week draws nearer. Given the infrastructure it takes to prepare for 13,000 skiers, including the construction of the International Bridge, we need about 4 days to make it all happen. If we find ourselves in a position where we need to adjust event plans, we will share the update by Tuesday afternoon at the latest.”