|Article in Wall Street Journal Web Page|
Sochi Games Turn to Finnish Expert With Stockpile Plan
Updated Dec. 13, 2013
HELSINKI—Mikko Martikainen bends down and picks up a handful of snow. "You see, it's dying," he says, as he feels the crystals between his fingers. "There's no connection. It's like a porridge!" He chucks it on the ground.
The 56-year-old Finn is something of a snow whisperer. Using a combination of personal ingenuity and the latest in snow-making equipment, Mr. Martikainen has created a business that solves snow quandaries everywhere from Africa to the Himalayas.
Today, he's at a Helsinki indoor ski center trying to make the snow feel less like soppy oatmeal and more like the stuff of a snowball, without raising operating costs. But the task is nothing compared with his highest-profile job: Guaranteeing snow for the coming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in February.
"I'm not worried," Mr. Martikainen says of the conditions in Sochi. "If someone else is, let them be, but I'm not, because I have a lot of information."
Upon witnessing the near-disastrous snow shortage at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, he figured the services of his nimble one-man company, Snow Secure Ltd., could help the organizers of the subsequent games, scheduled to take place in the warmest region of Russia.
In May 2010, Mr. Martikainen set off to Russia for the first time in his life.
The day after his sales pitch in Moscow, he flew to Sochi and soon became a regular fixture in the mountains there. The task fit his company philosophy: To tackle niche snow problems too small for what he calls "big companies doing ordinary big things." He likes "mission impossibles" on the frontier of snow-making and dreams of something he describes as "hi-tech snow."
Mr. Martikainen has been traveling to Sochi roughly once a month to prepare the Russian host city's "contingency snow master plan."
It's essentially a three-pronged approach. First, organizers will rely on ordinary snow-making equipment. Then, there are nearly 500,000 cubic meters of snow that Mr. Martikainen has stored since last season in some 14 insulated piles tucked away in the Caucasus Mountains. Lastly, organizers have imported three machines guaranteed to produce snow in temperatures as high as 59 degrees Fahrenheit.
A spokeswoman for the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee, which hired Mr. Martikainen, calls him "our official expert."
If there is too much snow, Mr. Martikainen says he has removal plans for that, too. "It's like insurance," he says.
Of his many days in Sochi, Mr. Martikainen is fairly tight-lipped. He says he has signed a confidentiality agreement. (He says Finns, anyhow, are known for being silent types.)
He is a font of snow info. The world record for an ordinary snowmaker functioning in hot weather was set at 47.5 degrees Fahrenheit but the humidity was just 5%, he says. There are more than 20 separate words for types of snow in Finnish. In a recent email with the subject line "Let it snow," he wrote to follow up on exciting news about the world's biggest igloo.
When it comes to work, Mr. Martikainen's method is exacting. A self-described "weather freak," he says he analyzed roughly 1,000 pages of past weather data for the Sochi mountain district and even interviewed one of his drivers' grandmothers, a lifelong resident, about past winters. He also took notice of the prediction by a Russian scientist at the Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory of a coming ice age, conveniently forecast to start in early 2014.
Having a feel for snow is important, too. For him, "snow—it's an emotional connection, it's a love story," Mr. Martikainen says. Snow is his "second love" after his wife of more than 30 years. He says: "It's my life."
He spends summers in Finland, working on a novel at a house on an island. The house has no electricity. Soon, it will have a sauna that he is building, which he says will float on the nearby lake. Both Finland and Russia share a long sauna tradition—they're called banyas in Russia—but Mr. Martikainen noticed some differences in his travels. People in Finland don't wear felt hats in saunas, for instance, whereas Russians sometimes do. One Finnish ski resort does have a gondola that doubles as a sauna, though.
Born in the industrial city of Varkhaus, Mr. Martikainen says he began cross-country skiing as soon as he could walk and took to the slopes at age seven. By his 20s, he was coaching Finland's national alpine racing team. After a number of non-skiing jobs, he returned to take over the ski resort at the local mountain—the same hill where he learned to ski. "I almost died," Mr. Martikainen says. The demands of running the tiny mountain became crippling. There, he learned "what's possible and what's mission impossible."
All the while, he had been harboring a dream. For decades, he says he gazed at the heaps of snow that plows leave in Finland at the end of each winter, thinking that if those little piles can survive practically into the summer, so too could his beloved Finnish ski season. He moved to Ruka, a ski resort just shy of the Arctic Circle, where starting in 2001, he ran an EU-funded experiment to extend the ski season. "Sometimes young men have a fire inside them," Mr. Martikainen says. "I had this fire. I had to do it."
To make the season last into June, he simply used snowmakers to produce as much snow as humanly possible. The strategy for making the season start earlier was more complicated. In the days before refrigeration, Finns stored their perishables over the summer months in ice heaps covered in sawdust, he says. In Ruka, Mr. Martikainen saved up snow in sawdust-covered mounds and hauled out the reserves in the autumn.
A similar tactic is now at work in Sochi but with one main difference. The difficulty of obtaining sawdust in mass quantities led Mr. Martikainen to use aluminum and geo-textile coverings to insulate the piles of snow. He has tested those in the Finnish far north.
Organizers in Sochi aren't relying solely on Mr. Martikainen. A large Russian snow team is working alongside him in the mountains. In addition, according to a recent announcement on Twitter by Sochi Organizing Committee President Dmitry Chernyshenko, shamans in Russia's region of Altai recently held a ceremony to make sure "everything's fine with the snow."