There are only a couple hundred sliding-track workers on the entire planet and they are entrusted with the safety of bobsleigh, luge and skeleton athletes travelling speeds over 140 kilometres per hour. Pique took a behind-the-scenes look at the Whistler Sliding Centre ice crew earlier this season as the workers aimed to create the best sheet on the IBSF and FIL World Cup circuits.
In any number of sports, the people who create the playing surface are often forgotten.
Whether it's those painting lines on grass for soccer or football, creating horticulture heaven for golf or baseball, or driving the Zamboni at the local rink, their efforts are overlooked — if they are remembered at all — once the action begins.
There are any number of kids cutting grass at a ballpark and it's hard to find a red-blooded Canadian who hasn't at least tried to take an ice resurfacer for a spin.
But the icemakers at the Whistler Sliding Centre (WSC) are a bit of a rarer breed. With only 15 tracks currently operational on the planet, the track crew is a small brethren looking to make the best ice in the world.
The Whistler squad is led by Robb Zirnhelt, a former speed skater from Kamloops who worked part-time in the control tower at Calgary Olympic Park while he trained on a flatter more conventional ice surface. When he stopped competing, he made the switch to working on the ice directly, eventually working his way up there, following current WSC managing director Tracy Seitz westward when the Whistler track opened in 2007. In 2011, Zirnhelt was named the manager of track operations.
The crew's first members start work at six each morning, getting the 1,450 metres of track ready to go about three-and-a-half hours before the first sleds hurtle down the ice, reaching speeds of over 140 km/h.
On this 10-degree October day during the first week of sliding, the crew is granted no reprieve as a low-pressure system forces them to properly shape the ice to prepare for Canada's top luge, skeleton and bobsleigh athletes.
"In the early season, it takes them about three hours in the morning to get them ready to go. If we're in a nice high-pressure system later in the winter, sometimes, it'll take an hour, but you have to be prepared for whatever and hope for the best," Zirnhelt says. "Sometimes if it's a high-pressure system, we won't even have to spritz. The ice will stay nice and dry and clear.
"Some days take a little bit longer but it's going to pay off for us leading into World Cup."
What's in the back of the minds of every WSC track worker this season were the back-to-back World Cups in early December. The first high-level event, the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) BMW World Cup took place Dec. 2 and 3. The International Luge Federation (FIL) Viessmann World Cup is coming this weekend on Dec. 9 and 10.
With athletes who can aptly handle the high speeds, the stomach-churning G-forces and 16 curvaceous corners, the crew will be looking to get on track to create fast, clear, glassy ice to enable the competitors to put up their best times.
Whenever the world's best come to the track, Zirnhelt feels a measure of pride when the winners are honoured after the races. Though for him, no World Cup will match being in attendance at the Olympics, he notes only a couple of the staff of 18 crew members (14 full-time and four part-time) were on the team during the 2010 Games, though he expects the World Cup races will inspire them.
"Anybody who wins a medal on the field of play, especially Canadians, it's pretty awesome to have that happen. I don't think anything will match the Olympics to that, but even the World Cup last year with (Canadian pilot) Chris Spring was pretty special," he said.
Tools of the trade
Much of the work can be similar day in and day out as the crew scrapes off any excess frost, ice or debris that can impede the sleds as they careen through the course. If small bumps in the ice are missed and allowed to grow, Zirnhelt explains, they expand into much larger bulbs and can injure a crashing slider severely, especially near the end of the track after they've picked up some significant speed.
The tools to do that work aren't exactly pieces available at Home Hardware, so the crew sometimes needs to get creative.
With the scraper blades, for example, Zirnhelt creates and maintains five different heads to perform different tasks along the track.
"We buy them in 24-inch wood planer blades and chop them up for our use," he says. "We try to keep them fairly standard... There are different widths, but for the most part, we try to keep them fairly interchangeable."
Different types of scrapers are used for bigger walls on the course, the curved barrel, and for the track floor. As well, some scrapers serve to change the ice's profile, while some are merely for maintenance.
Brandishing a pole in the WSC's garage, he stresses knowing the importance of the different blades.
"You have to know what blade for what, and even what scraper you want to use that in. In a small corner, you wouldn't want to use a big scraper like this to set the profile with," he says.
When crew members go out to scrape, Zirnhelt explains, many will take four or five blades at a time since each one only stays sharp for about 45 minutes of work.
But even some of the basic tools are non-negotiable with Zirnhelt, as only Garant shovels, for example, seem to work exactly in the way he'd like them to.
"It's funny to think that you have to have a different shovel, but you do," he says. "You try to use any of these other ones and it doesn't seem to work quite as well. Same with the brooms, actually, for that matter. Our supplier changed the company they were going with and they just didn't work as well so I had to special order the brooms we wanted to use. I don't know if you get stuck in your ways and get used to one thing or if there is actually a difference."
Veteran crew member Adam Snow, admittedly a "gearhead," rattled off a laundry list of items that he'll have with him at all times as he's on the track in an interview at his Alpine Meadows home.
Among the items are: a 5/16-inch wrench covered in skeleton tape or another similarly tough adhesive for changing out the scraper blades, his own nozzle for the hose and a multi-tool.
"When you're going down the track, the worst thing is to see something that needs fixing like a loose screw or something that needs to be cut off... and you have to go all the way back to the ops bay for the tool or for a wrench or a pair of pliers," he says.
The scrapers aren't the only necessities made in-house. At the bobsleigh start, Zirnhelt points out an ice cutter used to set the start lines at the top. He explains Seitz, who worked in Park City, Utah as well as in Calgary, helped design it based on a similar contraption he'd seen.
The device, which is placed on rails alongside the track to keep it straight and steady, is operated manually. Zirnhelt explains it only takes between five and 10 minutes to get a nice clean cut in the ice, though smoothing the surface beforehand can take 45 minutes.
"In the old days, you used to just take a rope down the middle, snap it, hold it tight and just try to follow a pointer and keep it straight," he says, noting only experienced workers could do it successfully.
Sometimes, the edges become round and eroded when athletes slide in them, so the crew will pare it back down or fill in the lines with water and re-cut them after it freezes.
Dressed for success
At first glance, it may seem a little odd to consider a clothing strategy to a day of work, but Snow explains there is method beyond fashion in the madness.
Noting Whistler Sport Legacies provides workers with a good shell and mid-layer, Snow said some of that fancy gear doesn't get worn as much as one might expect.
"When you go in, you take all of that off. You have just your first layer and maybe your long-sleeve or your T-shirt on because you know you're going to have to work really hard on the morning sweep, so you build up a sweat. Even on the coldest of days, you wouldn't be wearing more than a hoodie," he says. "As soon as you're done that sweep, you have to put on a hoodie so you don't get too cold. You have to let yourself cool down a bit and then you go about your day and if you have to stand in the outrun or if you have to go work somewhere else, you'll put your shell on. If it's a sunny day and it's light, you can just wear your mid-layer.
"Eventually, working outside, you just get used to it. Especially, when we're scraping, I've seen guys in T-shirts in minus-20 in a corner.
"The worst thing in the world is to be too sweaty and have your clothes all filled with sweat when you've got to stand in the outrun for three hours while sliding is going on."
Snow also raves about alpine boots, as when he first made the switchover from flexible work boots, much of his back and core pain went away within a week. When you're wearing that footwear 14 to 16 hours a day, as he does, it's well worth the investment, especially since the boots are designed to last.
"These are the best boots for what we do because when you think about what we do, we just walk on a manmade glacier all day long and these are designed for that — walking up and down steep sections on ice, they're able to hold crampons. They're expensive, especially at our wages, it's expensive to have to buy this to do your work, but this is what will save your back. You won't have hip problems. You'll have traction on ice. You'll be stable and your core won't work too hard. Most of the guys who have been there for any length of time, you look on their feet and this is what they have," Snow said.
On the bottom of the boots, crew members will attach crampons to safely walk up and down the ice.
With the little grippers on their feet, many of the veteran members are tasked with ensuring the track remains safe to slide.
The initial flood to get the base layer of ice was about a two-week process of building the frozen water onto the refrigerated wall and then crafting it carefully.
Zirnhelt explains learning the track is a process as all 16 curves are different and require their own techniques to properly treat every element.
"You've got a curved wall falling away from you at the same time and shape the profile of how tight or open the corner is, how tall it is. It's all individual so we can't just prescribe a method of doing something. You learn each corner has its own personality and how it has to react," he says. "You might have two corners that are similar but the corner before and the corner after are different, so (that affects) how you transition from that corner to the next."
Describing the proper motion, power and release as sort of like a slapshot in hockey, Zirnhelt edges his way down the track and although it doesn't look exactly like he's trying to score, it's easy to understand what he's talking about. With both, the movement needs to be quick, forceful and precise to be effective. If it's too hard, too much ice can be removed, but if it's not hard enough, the ice will ripple and be left with a "funny texture."
It's a move the workers will be doing each and every day, especially small gaps, which are fixed or changed daily by adding more water.
"Every time you put water on, you're changing the profile a little bit from the way you scraped it," Zirnhelt says. "It's constant and ongoing. We're starting to see here the profile is basically mimicking what the concrete is. The concrete's not perfect, so as the season goes and we watch sleds go down, we find holes and high spots. We scrape or (add) slush to make the profiles nice and smooth."
However, adding water is only done in moderation when necessary to battle frost, as water makes the ice bumpy, while sweeping and shovelling helps keep the smooth sliding surface in place.
Ready for anything
As Zirnhelt, Snow and other crew members prepare the ice this morning, the young lugers are starting from a lower point on the course. Zirnhelt explains that the first brigade of workers prepared the lower section toward the track's end and saved the higher parts for later as the afternoon's skeleton racers were set to go from the top.
It's early in the season and many of the athletes are getting their wits about them, but one slider has requested to take a run from men's start — an unexpected development for the crew.
"That wasn't in the plan," Zirnhelt says. "They're only going to do one run through here, so we're not going to give it a shovel and a sprinkling or anything; we're just going through and making it safe. We go and look for any bumps and things like that and scrape them off, but the frost through (the start) is what they're going to slide on which means from here to where they start from is going to be really slow. It's going to be alright for an introduction."
The crew gets the preparations ready in about 30 minutes and Whistler local Reid Watts gets in his run from the men's start. It was all a matter of good fortune.
"We haven't sent sleds from here yet this year. Sometimes, it wouldn't take that long, sometimes it would take more. These guys were already here, which was huge. If they're at the bottom and they have to come up, there's also the transfer time to grab the tools and things like that," Zirnhelt says.
"Right place at the right time," Snow pipes up.
"Otherwise the answer would have been no or 'we'll get it for you this afternoon,'" Zirnhelt says. "But it's good that they're feeling confident and ready to go. It's only their third session of the season."
Members of two crews
It's not all intense labour for the team members.
As part of the WSC's public programming, the crew are regularly called in to fill out a bobsleigh that might be a person short, helping to break up the day a little bit.
But Snow also pilots his own sled and has competed on the provincial circuit. Though he took the job thinking it would be just a job, he's pleased to have found a new hobby that spun off of it.
"Originally, I didn't have any intention of trying the sport at all and I'm still very much a rookie. I've only got one sliding season under my belt as it is. But seeing the sleds go and talking to athletes and talking to coaches and stuff, you just get interested in how it would feel. Working at the track, we all get the opportunity as staff to give it a try. That's one of the perks that's available," he says.
Snow says he has no pipe dreams of building up to anything like the World Cup circuit, adding his athletic endeavours do more to reinforce his interest in his day job than the other way around.
"For me, being able to slide it is being able to test your work and allows you to go back to your work with a different perspective. You make changes to the ice based on it. You know when the profile of a corner is getting a little thick or you know when the entrance of a corner first gets a little rutted and you can feel the runners grab in some areas. Your goal then turns around to make the ice that much more for the athletes, to take those imperfections out, to make sure that it's perfect for when you go to a race — not just a World Cup race but any race. We want to make it as fast and as safe as possible for any pilot, it doesn't matter what age," he says.
One part-timer, however, is looking to make the jump. When Russell Mathwin left Perth for Whistler, he had dreams of eventually making a charge for his national team — upon returning to Australia. But after spending his first winter as a liftie, a friend from his summer job at a golf course told him he worked at the track and a light bulb went off in the 23-year-old's head.
"I used it as a way to start the sport so I got into it that way. I had seen it at home and thought when I come home from my six-month trip — which turned into three years — that I'll start training for the Australian bobsled team and get into it that way. But being in Whistler, and there being a track here, I got into it in a different way than I thought I would," Mathwin explains over coffee.
Mathwin, currently looking to secure a spot as Lucas Mata's brakeman, is likely competing on the North American Cup circuit this year and hopes to make the jump to the World Cup — and possibly the Olympics — in the future. As he's not the one driving, he doesn't necessarily have any useful insider information on the track itself, but has developed a bit of a keen sense for what it might do over the course of a day.
"I do have an extra edge in knowing what's going to happen, more or less, just with being able to read the temperature of the day and go: 'This is going to happen today, it's going to get warm or cold or the frost in the track is going to grow.'"
And the World Cup athletes themselves know how important a strong track crew is.
North Vancouver athlete Jane Channell says it's not only imperative to have good ice so athletes can do their best, but to stay safe as well.
"As an athlete, how the ice is maintained is a critical part to our sport and well-being," she wrote in an email. "The track crew in Whistler is one of the best in the world. They work hard and take pride in their work, which is evident not only to us Canadians, but also to the other nations when they're here to compete. How they shape the corners and maintain the smoothness is so important for athletes. It allows us to slide and compete, pushing the limits of our bodies and the track while we attempt to break the time records.
"The ice conditions are also important for the athletes to protect us from unnecessary vibrations we feel when going down the track. Being a skeleton athlete, there are often times when our helmets are dragging on the ice from the G-forces in the corners so by having nice smooth ice, it helps protect our heads."
Zirnhelt says during World Cup action, the ice receives a little extra attention to make sure conditions are positively pristine, with a crew members performing "a sweep and a spritz" after each run.
And though it can be surprisingly easy to get acclimatized to having the sport's best pass through on a regular basis as being part of the job's minutiae, Zirnhelt stresses the crew remains vigilant and ready to tackle anything unexpected that comes along.
"The biggest trap is thinking that every day is going to be the same, because if you get stuck doing that, then something you're not paying attention to will get out of hand and you'll have to re-jig your plan to take care of it," he says.
Snow says he enjoys coming to work each and every day, striving to maintain that positive attitude even in the midst of a 10-hour shift.
"You don't want to lose sight of how fun that place is. You don't want to lose sight of how awesome that place is. You don't want to get caught in the grind," he says.