Despite mild winter, ski area hosts successful carnival

RIPTON — With two inches of rain forecast late last week and rapid swings in temperatures, Mike Hussey faced a challenge getting the cross-country ski racing course at the Rikert Nordic Center in Ripton ready to go for the Middlebury College Winter Carnival. Unfortunately, such challenging conditions for ski areas have been almost the norm this winter.
“It’s hard to do anything with the snow while it’s raining,” said Hussey, the director of Rikert, said on Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf campus in Ripton
The notable lack of snow this winter has tested the patience of skiers and snowboard riders, delaying openings at alpine ski resorts and forcing organizers of some Nordic races to reschedule or relocate their events to snowier locations.
The carnival — with Nordic races at Rikert and alpine races up the mountain at the Middlebury College Snow Bowl in Hancock — attracted racers from 15 member schools from the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association, and there was snow — plenty at the Bowl, just enough at Rikert.
Despite the weather, Hussey and his crew had Rikert’s 5K race course ready when teams arrived on Friday (Nordic racing was pushed back to Saturday and Sunday). Conditions were decidedly artificial. Hussey described the conditions as “99-percent manmade snow with two inches of help from Mother Nature.”
In good snow years, Rikert operates a network of 55 kilometers of trails. Two years ago the center installed its first artificial snowmaking equipment.
This weekend, 120 Nordic racers used the 5K loop for their warm-ups as well as the races, which included distances of 5, 10 and 20 kilometers. 
For many of the skiers that made the trip, the course was the longest they had experienced that winter. While many schools were not forced to cancel their races, some were relocated to courses with more snow, or completed on shortened tracks.
Williams College sophomore Jack Schrupp said that during 15- or 20-kilometer races on short 2- or 3K loops, he sometimes forgets how many laps he has completed and how many more he still has to go. He said the Rikert course was a welcome change. 
“Given the circumstances, this is a really great course,” Schrupp said on Sunday, when the temperatures hovered around 40 F. “It’s surprising, because when you look at the edges of the trails, there’s nothing.”
Given the lack of snow, the Williams Nordic ski team had been training at ski areas close to their campus in western Massachusetts, including Jiminy Peak in Hancock, Mass. The Williams Winter Carnival on Feb. 19-20 was moved to Nordic Trails around Lake Placid, N.Y. 
Middlebury Nordic skier Evan Weinman said that, thanks to the snowmaking at Rikert, the Panther team had been able to ski reliably since Thanksgiving, putting them at an advantage.
Other teams weren’t so lucky.
“We’re feeling a little rusty,” said Dartmouth Nordic coach Cami Thompson. “Since we haven’t had any natural snow, that means you have to travel more, which makes people more tired. We just really would like to get some good solid skiing.”
In place of skiing, the Dartmouth skiers took spin classes and distance runs. Dartmouth’s own Nordic races for their winter carnival were moved to the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in Craftsbury, Vt.
Middlebury wrapped up the carnival season with a fourth-place finish this past weekend (see story, Page 1B). The races also doubled as the EISA Championship as well as an NCAA Regional. The Panther skiers are now off until the NCAA Championships, which are slated for March 9-12 in Steamboat Springs, Colo., which has had no lack of snow this year.
UVM Senior Mary Kate Cirelli took second as part of a Catamount podium sweep in the 15K classic race, alongside Junior Iris Pessey, who took first, and senior Stephanie Kirk. Despite the less-than-stellar conditions for the early season, Cirelli said Vermont’s variable weather had prepared them for a strong finish to the season.    
“If anything, it’s been a mental challenge to see how we can adjust,” she said. “It’s kept us adaptable and we’re ready for Steamboat Springs.” 
SNOW CANNONS AT the Rikert Nordic Center in Ripton ensured that there was enough snow for the Middlebury College Winter Carnival, but outside their coverage area the snow was patchy.
Independent photo/Evan Johnson

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