Road to Sochi: Eagle Glacier hones Alaska's best skiers

Daily News correspondentAugust 24, 2013 

My husband, a retired ski racer, likes to say, "If there is one cloud in the state of Alaska, it will be over Eagle Glacier."The weather on the glacier -- the site of Alaska Pacific University's Thomas Training Center -- is almost always abysmal.

But this year, that was not the case: Like the rest of the state, our summer of on-snow ski training at Eagle was epic. My legs bear a tan line that I fear may be semi-permanent, and my ears are still peeling weeks later despite overzealous use of SPF 85.

For those unfamiliar with the facility, it's one of a kind in North America. While the American men's team literally flewaround the worldfor their on-snow camp in New Zealand, Eagle Glacier feels like my backyard. I simply drove 35 minutes to Girdwood, hopped on a helicopter, and flew seven minutes and 5,300 vertical feet up to winter -- our home away from home.

The facility is one of just a few in the entire world, and it's made possible by a special-use permit from the Chugach National Forest Service and a generous endowment from the Lowell Thomas Jr. family -- and lots and lots of hard work.

One thing that makes Eagle unique is that every morning, athletes roll out of bed and step into their skis just outside the front door. There's no morning commute, no hike to get on snow. I equate it to sleeping at the office, and in our case, this means training twice a day, every day.

Big weeks of training on Eagle are 30 hours of ski-time. By the end, we're usually so exhausted that it's hard to remember our own middle names. (Yes, it happened to me!)

In years past, I've spent countless hours skiing in the rain, or with ice pellets hitting my face like machine gun fodder. The weather systems on Eagle are dynamic, and a layer of clouds can roll over the ridge in the span of three minutes, taking our 10-mile views down to about 10 feet. Orange wands mark our eight-kilometer training course in the event of a white-out, and ski boots often stink of mildew, because there's barely time for them to dry between sessions.

This summer's sunshine was an anomaly, but in the past, adverse conditions of training on an Alaska glacier have played to our advantage.

Rarely do skiers have the opportunity to train in sloppy snow as high as our boots, or fog so thick that you can barely see your own hands when you plant your ski poles. But those conditions arise often when we're racing around the world.

Three years ago, at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, we found ourselves slogging through what felt like mashed potatoes. The downhills were treacherous, and it was impossible to control our skis. The next year we raced at the World Championships in Oslo, Norway in pea-soup fog. As many as 100,000 fans came to the venue to "watch" the races, but if not for their cheers, we'd never have known, because we couldn't even see them lining the sides of the trails!

These two experiences explain coach Erik Flora's favorite Eagle Glacier rallying cry on Eagle Glacier: "IT'S CHAMPIONSHIP DAY!!!!!" He's right, in that our access to and practice on Eagle Glacier in foul weather help prepare us for championship and Olympic performances.

This summer, our glacier camp was specifically aimed at preparing us for the Sochi Olympic venue. Our ski course was designed to resemble the terrain and climbs we will find in Russia. The hills are long and sustained lung-busters, and each intensity workout was meant to mimic the high-speed skate finish we'll need for the Olympic sprint, or for the five-minute steep climb we'll face on our classic skis.

Coaches supported our interval sessions on snowmachines, recording video with iPads to give us instantaneous feedback on our technique. When we're not outside training, we're completing glacier chores: cooking meals, preparing our skis for the next session, reviewing video, doing physical therapy. While there aren't many distractions at the building on the side of the cliff, there is never a dull moment.

I made two week-long trips to the glacier this summer. One was in June with my club, APU, and another was in July, for the third edition of the North American Women's Training Alliance camp, in which we trained with elite athletes from Outside. We had glorious sunshine in June, but the snow never froze at night -- which meant skiing felt like training in a petri dish of Elmer's Glue. The snow was so slow and so taxing, it was like running on sand rather than pavement -- for four to five hours per day. July was better, and even our international guest, world champion Astrid Jacobsen of Norway, couldn't get enough.

Perhaps my favorite day on Eagle Glacier this summer was the last day of our "Girls Camp," when we watched a tape of one of the races from the World Cup finals in Sweden in March.

I already knew the results of the race, but I could feel my heart pounding out of my chest with anticipation and excitement. Seated beside me, on the couches of Eagle Glacier, high in the mountains of Alaska, were four of the top eight girls in the race that day.

Sochi, Russia -- here we come.

Anchorage skier Holly Brooks is a 2010 Olympian and member of the U.S. Ski Team who trains with the Alaska Pacific University ski team. Her reports on preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, will appear periodically.


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