NAKISKA, Alta. - Snow-dusted trees glistened in the bright sunshine Friday at Nakiska Ski Area with the picturesque mountains providing a stunning backdrop for the first World Cup of the ski cross season.
The only problem was the temperature.
The Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup had to be postponed Friday afternoon due to frigid conditions. Shortly after the men's qualifying session was completed, race officials pushed the heats back to Saturday and cancelled the second World Cup that was scheduled to cap the weekend.
"It got better throughout the day but I mean it started off bitter," said Canadian skier Dave Duncan. "Frozen throats, burning throats, it was tough."
The temperature hovered between -25 C and -30 C on the Mighty Peace course in the early afternoon. It felt even colder if a breeze picked up or when the sun disappeared behind the mountain.
"I was one of the first people up the course this morning on a snowmobile and it was probably somewhere around minus-34 up at the very top," said Jim Sidorchuk, the event's chief of competition.
Ski cross is a sport that is very much at the mercy of the weather. Three events on last season's World Cup schedule were cancelled due to poor weather conditions, including fog, wind or precipitation.
However, it is a rarity — if not a first — for an event to be affected by cold temperatures. A spokesman for the sport's governing body (FIS, the International Ski Federation), said he couldn't recall a World Cup ski cross event being scrubbed due to the cold since the sport was added to the circuit in 2002.
The official temperature for the morning qualification was listed at -23 C. Defending champion Armin Niederer had the fastest time of one minute 29.44 seconds, over a half-second ahead of Swiss teammate Alex Fiva.
Brady Leman of Calgary was the top Canadian in fourth place, nearly a second off the lead.
Three other Canadians made the 32-skier cut. Duncan, from London, Ont., was ninth, Mathieu Leduc of Comox, B.C., was 19th and Louis-Pierre Helie of Berthierville, Que., was 30th.
In a significant surprise, Montreal resident and 2011 world champion Chris Del Bosco didn't qualify. He finished tied for 44th place, nearly three seconds off the lead.
Del Bosco was not available for comment.
"He's usually an automatic in qualifying," said head coach Eric Archer. "I don't know what it was today. These aren't the easiest conditions to wax in. Bodies get cold, you don't know what's going on. So he'll be fine and he'll be extra fired up for the next stop in Val Thorens (France)."
Tristan Tafel of Canmore, Alta., also came up short with a 46th-place result.
An Arctic air mass has hovered in the region for days but temperatures should be a little warmer Saturday. A high of -14 C is expected.
Sidorchuk said the bitter cold is taxing for the athletes because of their heavy breathing pace. Skiers who make it to the final round have to race four times within a 90-minute span.
"It's too cold," he said. "It's a safety issue. Just with the extreme cold, it's very hard on the athletes' lungs."
Duncan, who serves as the Canadian team's athlete representative, said it was "pretty unanimous" among his peers that the race should be postponed. He said the athletes' wishes were relayed to the race jury and an official decision was made.
"I'm a big advocate of the athlete voice and the consensus was to move on to tomorrow," Duncan said. "Here at home it's unfortunate and we'd love to give the Canadian fans a show.
"We had a couple of guys in there today that could have definitely taken a podium. It's unfortunate but hopefully we'll come out tomorrow and get 'em."
Making things worse for the Canadians is that they lose a home race on a circuit that has most of its stops in Europe. Most skiers need to post strong results over the next six weeks with Olympic qualification hanging in the balance.
"I already had one sleepless night last night and now I've got to do it all over again tomorrow — get those initial jitters out of the way," Duncan said. "Every single athlete here is pumped to race. We can't wait. It's just unfortunate that these are the cards we've been dealt today."
All four Canadian women advanced past the qualifying round on Thursday.
Georgia Simmerling of West Vancouver, B.C., was third, Marielle Thompson of Whistler, B.C., was seventh, Kelsey Serwa of Kelowna, B.C., was 11th and Calgary's Danielle Sundquist was 16th.
"My team is strong," Archer said. "They've almost all been on the podium in a World Cup before and (the cancellation) just takes one opportunity away. We've got to refocus and keep on rolling."
There is a warming tent near the starting gate but it's still challenging for the athletes to stay warm after a run. They have to go back up the mountain and then try to stay loose while they wait for their next heat.
Sidorchuk said when the race was postponed, the standstill temperature at the top of the mountain was -28 C.
"There is still that extreme," he said. "Your body temperature starts to go down and then you're put into a gate. So it's hard on the muscles, it's hard on the lungs, it's hard on the body altogether."
Switzerland's Fanny Smith is the defending women's champion. She finished second in qualifying behind Ophelie David of France.
The course was adjusted after the event's inaugural edition last year. It's an average of 15 metres wider and has bigger features and a huge jump near the finish.