Building rails, breaking ground
SNOWMASS – For Isabelle Falardeau, the transition from college student to ski bum started out as it does for many people: Spend a season working retail in a ski town and never go back to school.But when the Canadian snowboarder followed her heart to Aspen, she catapulted from generic ski-area employee to rail builder and, this season, terrain park manager at Snowmass.It’s an awesome job for any jibber – that’s slang for snowboarders and skiers who ride rails, pipes, boxes and other features – but Falardeau scores extra points as a woman blazing tracks in a male-dominated field.The Quebec City native has worked with some of the world’s premier park designers and spent several seasons at one of the fastest-growing terrain parks in the world. Add to that her experience at the X Games, designing features used by the best extreme athletes in the world, and Falardeau joins the ranks of an elite crew of park designers.Falardeau’s accomplishments even earned her some face time in the recently released “Mountaintown,” a film about the lives of a handful of locals in Aspen.”When they approached me, I thought, ‘whatever,'” she said. “I never really had any idea … how big it would be.”Upon returning from the summer in New Zealand, Falardeau was in for a surprise – a “huge” premiere at the Wheeler Opera House.”No one sent me the memo on wearing a fancy dress,” she said.Falardeau also didn’t expect the Aspen Skiing Co. to show the film to all its employees during orientation at the beginning of last ski season. The movie has brought her a certain celebrity on the mountain and around town – also unexpected.It’s a little embarrassing for the soft-spoken Falardeau, but, she said, “It made a great gift for my family, who have a hard time understanding what I do sometimes.”
After working several seasons as a park ranger at Whistler/Blackcomb in British Columbia, Falardeau followed her boyfriend, Greg Boyd, to Colorado when he landed a job as terrain park director at Buttermilk.She didn’t build any rails at Whistler, but she was “interested in jibbing, so they showed me a little.”By the time she got to Buttermilk, she had some experience and started to help build terrain park features.”The mechanics [at Buttermilk] were doing it, and they weren’t really as interested in it as much as I was,” she said, so they helped her learn some of the technical skills of metal fabrication, and she gradually took the lead. “They were happy to let someone else learn it and take care of it. They were really supportive,” she said.Building rails requires skills usually associated with men’s work – welding, cutting, torching and using power tools. But it also takes imagination when building totally new features.”It’s not like you have a textbook,” she said.It also takes a little math. As with any construction, small errors can add up to a big mismatch when assembling the parts. But Falardeau draws on a traditionally feminine skill to get ahead in this man’s world: sewing.”I find it very similar in that you have to figure out which pieces are going to add up which way,” she said.Falardeau said creating terrain parks is becoming more a collaborative effort for all of the parks’ crews.”People with less experience, they don’t know how to accomplish it, but they know what’s cool and what they want,” she said. “Someone who doesn’t ride rails wouldn’t know.”The angle of the rails, for instance, is important. If the metal workers don’t ride, they might make them too sharp.”It helps to understand movement and tricks and snowboarding,” she said.Falardeau helped construct the X Box for the 2006 X Games at Buttermilk. The giant X was the centerpiece of the slopestyle course that year, launching Shaun White to a gold medal.
While working on the X Games, Falardeau met Frank Wells, a pipe builder for the games and specialist for Snowpark Technologies.
“He’s the best pipe builder in the world,” Falardeau raves.He’s also co-owner of New Zealand’s Snowpark, an entire mountain devoted to freestyle skiing and snowboarding.Wells offered Falardeau an in at Snowpark, where she’s already spent two summers (or winters, if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere) and hopes to spend the coming summer as well.Also on the horizon for Falardeau is a visit to Cutter’s Camp in Timberline, Ore. The multiday conference offers terrain-park designers a chance to share ideas.”It’s pretty much a park people’s convention,” she said.Falardeau credits pioneer park builder Jeff Flood with the idea of bringing a bunch of those “park people” together for the first Cutter’s Camp several years ago.”He thought that the way to make parks more successful was through education and sharing ideas, because there is no school,” she said.Falardeau met Flood working on the X Games several years ago, when he invited her to the first Cutter’s Camp.”He thought it would be cool to get more girls involved,” she said. “I felt so lucky I got to work on that project with him.”Falardeau called the camp a “super-cool event, where you get to be a bunch of nerds and talk about parks for a week.”Camp organizers invited Falardeau to be a panelist this year, allowing her to offer her expertise in park building. But Falardeau expects to learn as much as she imparts.”It’s so humbling, because sometimes you forget how lucky we are here at big mountains,” she said.Falardeau “cries” over having only one snowcat dedicated to the Snowmass terrain park. But in her short stay at Cutter’s Camp, she is reminded that some smaller areas have only one cat for the entire mountain, meaning they have to find creative ways to build their parks.