Park Central |

Park Central

Tom Boyd

All questions about what 32-ounces of Red Bull and a few pints of coffee can do to a man’s eyes are answered by Elliot Cone. The combustible mix is part of a ritual, a rebirth of sorts, an annual welcoming of winter.For Cone, this is the first day of the rest of a very busy winter, the day construction begins on the Freeway Terrain Park the prize jewel of Breckenridge and one of the nation’s most popular snowboarding and freeskiing destinations on the planet.Sitting at the wheel of a massive, spidery snow-cat called the Zaugg Pipe Monster, Cone is speaking rapidly, theorizing about the ongoing creation of the Park.”We’ll work 12-hour or 15-hour shifts,” says Cone, who works seven days a week during the winter designing parks for recreational and professional use all over the world. “When everybody’s eyes start crossing, when you’re looking at the slope of a jump and you just can’t figure it out anymore, that’s when we decide to quit.”Like most of the men and women in his trade, Cone is relatively young and extremely hyped on freestyle snowsports. As his favorite sports change, so do the demands of his job.Cone is not alone in his quest for the ultimate kicker. He’s part of a growing army of park-sculptors who are upping the ante on what it means to have fun on snow. Among Colorado’s best terrain parks are Vail and Beaver Creek, Steamboat, Keystone (for the night riding) and Copper Mountain.”It’s like building a different kind of snowman,” says Doug Hagen, who manages the terrain parks at Copper Mountain. “You go with what worked the previous year, then change it, move it around, tweak it a little bit and draw it out.”The end result is similar to a skateboard park with a downhill slope. But unlike their cement counterparts, terrain parks can be overhauled and improved week after week, year after year. Leading Colorado resorts like Breckenridge, Vail, and Copper Mountain are spending upwards of $500,000 on specialized equipment and dedicating thousands of man-hours and day-to-day resources in an effort to draw the freestyle crowd.The booming industry has created a small clan of specialized park builders. Snowboarding participation has grown 74.2 percent since 1996, according to a survey by the National Sporting Goods Association, making it the second-fastest growing sport in the nation. Nearly 5.3 million people snowboard each year, and many of them ride the terrain park more than any other part of the mountain.The boom in snowboarder numbers has created a kind of park-lore subculture, where pro riders and park builders share information and ideas.The end goal, says Vail’s Stephen Laterra, is to create an atmosphere where snowboarders of all levels can hang out, try new tricks, watch the pros, stay safe and have a good time. The scene at most Colorado parks is similar: the latest music booms through massive speakers, yurts and shacks provide warmth, bean bags chairs host teenage chats, and videos of the latest freestyle movies keep riders inspired and tuned-in.The aura, says Laterra, helps feed the creativity. And the most recent product of Laterra’s creativity is the log rainbow, a long-sought park element.Like most park features, the log rainbow was born in the backcountry, beyond boundary ropes. Dead trees bent in a semi-circle above the ground now serve as features at the Vail park, giving the resort special distinction among expert riders.But Vail has plenty of creative competition. Cone and Laterra both agree that this year’s ongoing park construction has all the makings of creative explosion, a kind of park renaissance inspired by the cooperative networking of those who ply the trade.”Everybody in the industry has a good vibe from each other,” says Cone, who keeps in touch with designers from other resorts. “We get along well and we don’t keep any secrets because we’re going to see it all in the magazines anyway. With so many up-and-coming, competent park designers, this is going to be the biggest year ever in my mind.”Urban snowscapeIf Cone and Hagen are grizzled veterans, Chris Gunnerson is the unflagging patriarch of park building. As co-principle of California-based Snow Park Technologies, Gunnerson is on a mission to improve the nation’s parks, primarily by transforming young, hip freestylers into disciplined and responsible snow artists.”The first thing I look for is commitment from (resort) management,” says Gunnerson. “There’s a lot of people that want us to help them with their park, but they’ve got to jump in with both feet, spend some money and really commit.”Within each resort there are the right people (for the job). What I’m doing is finding those people and capitalizing on them, giving them the resources they need.”Gunnerson’s latest project is the improvement of Telluride’s terrain park, which he expects to be among the best in Colorado within the next several years. But Gunnerson will be trotting the nation and the globe this year, fighting to supply quality parks in the face of ever-increasing demand.One of the key elements of park development, says Gunnerson, can be learned from the sport of skateboarding. A skateboarder and surfer himself, Gunnerson has tried to “urbanize” his parks. Picnic tables, metal staircase handrails and rectangular “fun boxes” mimic the conditions of a downtown city street. Just as Laterra’s log rainbows imitate the backcountry, Gunnerson’s fun boxes imitate the streets.Skateboarding is the only sport to grow faster than snowboarding, according to the same National Sporting Goods Association survey. With a 106.3 percent growth rate since 1996, skateboarding is big business, and Gunnerson says the crossover from skateboarding to snowboarding is simple, sensible and very common.The ski movementNot everybody in the park is riding one plank and pulling skateboarding moves, says Freeze Magazine founder Michael Jaquet.”In Colorado I’d say the skier-to-snowboarder ratio in parks is closer to 50-50,” he says. “Out in California it’s a bit different, because there you have a larger influence from skateboarding and surfing, whereas Colorado has a stronger skiing tradition.”Jaquet started Freeze magazine in 1997 as part of an effort to give freestyle skiers a voice and a forum. The magazine helped spawn a rebirth of cutting-edge skiing, in part by helping to lift bans on skis in terrain parks. Freestyle skiers ride twin-tip skis, and share park time and cultural trends with snowboarders.”The freeskiing movement is really taking off,” says Hagen. “There’s even snowboarders who are switching back to skiing. The skiers get along with the snowboarders and they respect each other’s disciplines.”In turn, skiers and snowboarders tend to respect skateboarding. And like their brethren on wheels, park riders are beginning to build a better reputation among parents.”I don’t know if people think there’s a subculture, or counter-culture (at the parks), but when these guys are hanging out in the park they’re not rude to each other they’re all out there for each other,” says Hagen. “If a kid is hanging out and he doesn’t know the other kids around him, and he finally lands a move, there’s a round of applause and everyone cheers for the kid.”

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