Vermont-based writer Christian Camerota will be writing about the Sochi Olympics throughout the Games. Follow his coverage.
One of the chief characters in the Sochi Olympics drama that’s about to unfold is not like the others. It has a cold exterior, several different faces, an unforgiving nature. Oh yeah, and it’s only seven years old.
Much of the intrigue of the 2014 Games’ alpine events surrounds their venue, Rosa Khutor, a megaresort in the Caucasus Mountains, 25 miles from Sochi proper. Unlike most Olympic alpine hosts, Rosa Khutor is new. Brand new. The town below, Krasnaya Polyana, was little more than a 300-person village for much of its existence, known for its honey and wildflowers, and without reliable road access through 2006. In 2007, the skiing was served by a single, slapdash lift.
In 2014, things are a bit different. The mountain’s spectator area, alone, will host about ten times what that single lift once carried in a year. Rosa Khutor is now one of Europe’s largest luxury resorts, with supposedly ubiquitous Wi-Fi, gondolas gliding up the slopes like airborne ant trains, and some of the finest natural runs for racing the Olympics has ever seen.
Russia brought in 1972 Swiss gold medalist Bernhard Russi to design the race courses, after scouting hundreds of kilometers of mountains for the perfect location. The chosen peak tops out at 7,612 feet, slightly higher than Whistler in British Columbia, host of the 2010 Olympics, and features an impressive vertical drop of 5,774 feet. By itself, the downhill course covers more than two miles.
There is a U.S. connection to Rosa Khutor in the personage of Roger McCarthy, a former co-president of Vail Resorts, who left his job in 2007 (right around the time Sochi won its Olympics bid) for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build a resort from the ground up. Though McCarthy departed the project the following year, it continued its hike toward completion and was put through its first paces in 2012, when it hosted a World Cup event. Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn have both sung its praises.
The resort is enigmatic mostly for its locale. It’s similar in climate and elevation to Whistler, with its proximity to the Black Sea yielding significant snowfall and moderate but still-cold-enough temperatures for snowmaking. But alpine skiing, you see, does not occupy a high position in the Russian recreational hierarchy. It’s generally seen as superfluous. Rosa Khutor’s completion may not guarantee its future following its Olympic moment in the sun, and security concerns will abide during it.
But for the next month at least, it will be center stage for the world’s skiing stars. The downhill course is grueling, the slalom course is steep and, perhaps best of all, both will be covered in snow. Snowfall has been abundant in the Caucasus Mountains so far this year and should that change in the near future, Olympic officials have contingency plans. At their disposal is one of the most impressive snowmaking systems in all of Europe, with two water reservoirs, more than 400 snow generators and a huge stash of snow stored near the mountain under insulated blankets, if needed.
Unlike the Vancouver Games, where skiing and snowboarding events were interrupted by rain and warmer temperatures, Rosa Khutor should be cold and its pistes should be white. The thing to watch for will be how the courses (and the new resort) hold up under an avalanche of athletes and spectators.