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Packing ’em in with terrain parks

Cindy Kleh/Special to the Daily

This is the final installment in a series of stories on the history and future of the sport of snowboarding.

One could say that snowboarding has arrived. But one could also say that snowboarding is just beginning. Most ski resorts are extending the red carpet to riders, even if it means losing a few old-school-attitude skiers.

Terrain parks and halfpipes are now must-have amenities while the music played in the park can’t be lame either. Many resorts now have separate beginner/intermediate parks, quarterpipes, halfpipes and superpipes. And instead of listing the number of parks, resort Web sites are bragging about the number of jib features, jumps and park events and competitions.

Snowboarding magazines feature park designers, cat drivers and park maintenance crews at specific resorts that have stellar reputations for their terrain parks.

It says a lot about the rising importance of parks that the folks who create them are almost as revered as the stars who rip them up. In the last decade, the art and science of pipes and parks has gone from kindergarten to grad school.

Ski resorts of the past feared big air, roping off every possible jump or drop off. Today they are putting their energy into hiring the best jump creators and maintaining the parks daily to keep takeoffs and landings safe. Ski and snowboard schools are creating special classes and clinics that address halfpipe and terrain park skills and etiquette.

The American Association of Snowboard Instructors has led the way with a new movement analysis manual that specifically addresses freestyle skills. Snowboard instructors are becoming more knowledgeable about how to coach in the terrain park and pipe.

Flaunting flair

Even Arapahoe Basin, a resort that has never tried to be trendy or offer frills or thrills other than its challenging terrain and snow conditions, created two small parks last year – Upper and Lower Mother Hucker – which change throughout the season depending on the amount of natural snow available.

If it’s a good snow year, Upper Mother Hucker could be open until June.

“People have been asking for a terrain park here for years. We’ve always had North Fork, which is a natural terrain park,” said Arapahoe Basin’s Leigh Heirholzer. “We would have made terrain parks even if we didn’t get snowmaking, but snowmaking allowed us to be open a month and a half earlier this year than last year.”

Almost everything else about Arapahoe Basin remains old school: reasonably priced food, free and close parking, uncrowded slopes and high-altitude wilderness for as far as the eye can see.

Six miles west of Arapahoe Basin, Keystone has been trying to “evolve” into a more happening place this season. Fresh blood in key marketing and management positions was the first step, but considerable effort has gone into relocating and redesigning the terrain park, known as A51.

With night illumination, A51 boasts rails that emit flames or have names like The Sterilizer. Local riders were talking about Keystone’s potential this season before the new park even opened.

Keystone has given some of the mountain restaurants a cooler, younger theme, embracing the current philosophy of the ski industry – that the kiss of death is to become an “old-guy” product.

The buses have eye-grabbing paintings on the outside and edgier music inside. River Run has been injected with “sex appeal” and a “spring break” atmosphere. Lusting after the attractive, party-till-you-puke reputation of Breckenridge, Keystone now claims to “own the night” – although night skiing still ends at 8 p.m.

Mountain High

Why this sudden worship for the young crowd often associated with snowboarding?

Sure, youngsters are the future snow sport customers, but snowboarding has grown faster than any other sport in the nation since 1997.

According to a study by the National Sporting Goods Association, skateboarding is in second place, with skiing ranking about 30th by percent change, right after dart-throwing and martial arts. The writing is on the wall: Get hip or die, dude!

Resorts in California have already cultivated this idea to the extreme. Mammoth Mountain, Big Bear and Snow Summit have taken terrain parks to a new level.

But Mountain High, in the San Gabriel mountains of California, is the prime example of a forward-thinking mountain resort that has gone after the urban youth market and their fat wallets, and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

Mountain High had its best November ever in 2003. By catering to snowboarders, who make up 80 percent of Mountain High’s customers, the resort is proving that a tricky climate and a small amount of terrain do not have to limit a mountain resort’s earning power.

By hiring some of the best park designers in the world and making the most of man-made snow, Mountain High has become the most popular resort in California. The ticket windows closed down nine days of one record month when ticket sales limits were reached.

Mountain High has grabbed the attention of local riders – Los Angeles is about an hour away – by changing terrain features each week, and introducing new features like a 32-foot double roller and the Toolbox, a wide box with dual sidecars for trick variations.

It may seem that California resorts are taking the whole idea of laying out the red carpet to snowboarders too far, especially for Colorado’s geography and demographics, but they may be pointing the way to the future of outdoor recreation in general.

Terrain parks make the most of small, low-altitude areas. With enough snowmaking and expertise, a small resort can really pack ’em in.

Many do not subscribe to the theory of global warming, but 36 U.S. ski areas consider it enough of a threat to the future of their industry to band together and urge Congress to pass bipartisan legislation controlling air pollution. Global warming could not only shorten the ski season but could put lower altitude areas out of business.

Next big thing

With skateboarding the second fastest growing sport, the invention of the snowskate was just a matter of time. A cross between a snowboard with no bindings and skateboard, snowskates have become so popular that all the major snowboard companies have come out with a model.

Although brand new on the board-sport scene, snowskates have quickly evolved into two stacked boards – bi-decks – to give them more of a skateboard feel.

Some resorts have already built snowskate parks, which take a fraction of the space of terrain parks.

Snowskates are allowed on the chairlifts as long as the rider has a leash, but many riders are using their snowboards and snowskates in the city, wherever there is a steep, challenging rail or a picnic table with enough snow for a kicker at the top and a landing at the bottom.

But is snowboarding moving away from its dependence on mountains and chair lifts?

Many “old-school” riders grumble that snowboarding is becoming increasingly urban and moving away from its roots, but actually, freestyle snowboarding grew out of urban skateboarding. And what could be more soul-of-snowboarding than not wanting to buy a lift ticket or having the added fun of dodging cops?

Who knows where snowboarding is headed. The only certain fact is that it’s not going away. New snow toys are bound to come along, and maybe one day snowboards will become (gasp!) an “old-guy” sport, but terrain parks and halfpipes are here to stay.

At the same time, America’s youths are becoming more sedentary and obese. Will kids become so large that they can’t reach down and strap in? Will snowboarding evolve as a computer game instead of a snow sport? Has snowboarding ever been predictable?

Rarely, dude.

Cindy Kleh lives in Keystone. She is an avid snowboarder, author of snowboarding books and a freelance writer.


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