Kontiolahti is located somewhat off the beaten track in Eastern Finland. It is some 450km, or 5 hours, from Helsinki by car and at least the same distance from Lapland, where early-season skiing in Finland primarily takes place. However, when driving the main highway number 5 between Southern and Northern Finland, the detour is no more than two hours, out and back. There is also a commercial airport about 20 kilometres away in Joensuu with daily flights from Helsinki.
Kontiolahti is home to two major points of interest, which are actually more or less the same thing: the World Cup biathlon arena and a cooled ski track. Yes, it is an outdoors ski track with cooling pipes underneath, promising to launch the season earlier and keep you skiing through any late-autumn heat spells and rain pours. Sounds ingenious, doesn’t it?
Could this be the answer to weather-cancelled ski marathons around the world in recent years? How does it work? Who runs it and what are the economics of the operation? Does it feel any different from ski tunnels or ordinary outdoor loops with farmed snow? I set out on a trip to have a look at the facility and chat with Jarno Lautamatti, Development Manager of the Cooled Ski Track Company.
Northern hemisphere: the place to be this time of the year
The idea of a cooled track sounds awesome. How did you come up with that and how does it work?
– Actually, we have had the cooling system in place ever since 2004. It is based on Finnish technology that was originally used in Kuortane on a smaller scale in connection with an ice hall. Over the years, we have learned to utilise it most efficiently. The idea is to douse the track with water, and deep-freeze the moist ground with the cooling system. Then we lay a very thick bed of farmed snow from last winter, about 70 centimetres, on top of the artificially frozen ground, and run the system just enough to keep the earth frozen, which prevents the natural heat from below from melting the snow, says Jarno.
The cooling pipes are laid on top of an insulation board, covered in gravel and topped by porous asphalt, which serves as a rollerski track during the off-season. The compound running in the pipes is called Freezium, also used in ice rinks.
Ok. It sounds like the system does not allow one to ski throughout the summer, after all, even with unlimited electricity or money?
— Unfortunately, the underground system does not prevent the forces of nature from wearing down the snow from above. But it will deter the melting process significantly, enabling us to maintain good skiing conditions with much less need to bring in new snow during the artificial-snow season. Among other benefits, it probably saves costs, since we need less work with tractors and trucks to move snow around once the base is laid. In fact, even if the weather is moderately warm, we should be covered as long as it is dry. However, when there’s lots of rain or sun and wind in combination with warm weather, we have to patch the track with more snow almost like everybody else. Therefore, we have found mid-October the optimal time to launch the operation, and keep it running on warm days until there’s enough natural snow for an extensive network of ski tracks in the area. That usually happens in January, and that’s when our commercial season ends.
So you do not operate the system to prolong the season in late spring?
— No. There isn’t generally enough demand to offset the cost towards the end of season, when most people prefer to ski in Lapland with plenty of snow and large track networks. However, we are certainly open as a normal ski track without an access fee for as long as there is snow. Due to the thick base of ice we create in the autumn, the season in fact continues quite long, even into May. For special occasions, it is of course possible to run the cooling system in the spring, too. We have done it in the past, for example, to ensure good conditions for the World Championships.
That brings me to the issue of cost. What level of initial investment is required to build a track like this and how much electricity is consumed in operating it? Could similar installations be made to ensure that races such as Ski Classics and Worldloppets can be organised on their original tracks in the future?
— I am not aware of the exact initial investment, as the facility was built almost fifteen years ago and I was not around at the time. Also, the construction was quite a unique project, so the cost of its reproduction somewhere else today might be something completely different. For sure, similar facilities can be built in any ski area, but I believe the economics necessitate a longer paid season than a single day or week. As to the cost of operation, it depends on the weather conditions, but on average we use about a thousand kilowatt hours per day when the system is on in October and November. During that period, our electricity bill tends to be around 6,000—8,000 euros per month, including the consumption of the snow cannons.
The cooled ski track of Kontiolahti in October 2017.
Who are the owners of the Cooled Ski Track Company and what kind of a company is it?
— The company operates the cooling system and collects the access fees at the ski arena here during the artificial-snow season. It is jointly owned by the municipality of Kontiolahti and the Kontiolahti Sport Club, so we are a non-profit group. If we ever make a surplus, it is spent in development investments. Last year, we invested in three snow cannons, which we are still paying off.
Who are the primary users of the facility?
— Initially, the biathlon stadium and the ski track were primarily geared for racing athletes. Back in those days, casual skiers were not accustomed to paying for access to a ski track. However, following the past few winters with fairly little snow, that attitude seems to have changed. Currently, we have quite a balanced mix of racers from around the world on their training camps, active Finnish amateurs as well as local “Sunday skiers”. The youngest customer I know was probably 5 years old and the most senior one is in his late 80s — he is in fact the dad of Sami Repo (former member of the Finnish national ski team and Olympic bronze medallist from Nagano).
Great… is there anything you would like to add to our readers?
— Well, I would like to emphasise that the paid season here only lasts during the period when it is not otherwise possible to ski due to the lack of natural snow, and the fees are there just to cover the costs. This track will be completely opened when the connecting tracks to the municipal ski network can be made. That usually takes place in early January, and at that time we welcome everyone to ski here completely free of charge.
These tracks are also used to host several ski races, such as the biathlon world cup in March and an international FIS race just next weekend. Our operation guarantees snow-secure conditions for the races in the early and late season. For example, during the World Championships in March 2015, the conditions in the first week were challenging, but we were able to keep the track in excellent shape. Finally, the ski arena has a very international clientele, which makes a positive contribution to the local economy.
Thanks very much, Jarno. I can’t wait to go try the track now for myself!
Start of the ski track with the biathlon shooting range in the background.
Although it was getting late and I had driven five hours from the capital in Helsinki with two more before reaching my destination further north, I had to give the track a go, of course. The weather was just slightly below freezing at -1 C or so, hence the cooling equipment was already switched off.
The path was in a good condition, like any well-groomed ski track with a thick and solid bed of farmed snow. Obviously, it was not at all dry and grainy like in so many indoor ski facilities. There was both good glide and grip on my Peltonen Skin Pros, and the classic track was deep and firm. As a minor note of complaint, however, the ridiculously tiny baskets that came pre-installed in my brand-new Swix Triac 3.0s plunged through the surface easily when trying to double pole harder. I have replaced them now with larger ones, which should be fine in similar conditions.
The terrain was quite versatile with a gently undulating main track and a separate harder loop with a fast (60+ km/h) descent and a steep climb. At four meters or more, it is also wide enough for passing traffic, which is a must considering the diverse user base of the facility.
Finally, a word of disclaimer. This report is not an advertorial by any means, and we have no affiliation whatsoever with the facility. I happily offered to pay the access fee to the track, and at €17, I think it’s well worth it. Granted, I did take up on Jarno’s kind offer of retiree’s discount, though. After all, it isn’t entirely incorrect as description of a Nordic-ski bum approaching middle age and running around remote ski tracks in the middle of the week, right?
Photos courtesy of the Cooled Ski Track Company, Google Earth and the author
Ilkka Korhonen, a native of Finland. Life-long background of moderate activity, including road cycling for ultra-long distances and time trialing. Having skied some as a schoolchild like all Finns of his generation, was reconnected with the sport twenty years later through a wager to train for two months and get a medal in Vasaloppet (complete the race in <1.5 * the winner's time). Failed that by half an hour but succeeded the next year. Subsequent goal was to double-pole the course, while beating his brother's PB… Managed the first part, kind of, but at a cost to placing and finishing time – so the quest continues.
Employing himself, as of this season, as a communications consultant and translation contractor in financial services and central banking affords him the freedom make his own schedule and apply a high-volume exercise regimen as well as the resources to chase the sun or snow and collect those Worldloppet stamps. Athletic career highlights so far mainly consist of a Vasaloppsmedalj (pictured) and a few Strava KOMs, but hasn't lost faith that "the next season" will be the best ever.