Originally published in TransWorld SNOWboarding Magazine, October 2009 (23.2). Don’t miss an issue Subscribe HERE
Check the Teaser HERE
By Joel Muzzey
A subzero morning on Main Street in Silverton, Colorado. Seven a.m. and the streets are empty save for a few crusty, old pickups and filthy snowbanks. “I’m here with the Red Bull crew, for that halfpipe-filming and stuff,” I stammer to the coffee girl, answering the unasked question hanging in the air. Smiling, she returns a blank stare and slides me the cup.
“I’m meeting Nipper in a bit, to go up” I add, namedropping for a little local cred-Nipper Alsup is the local fixer, the guy, according to Shaun White, who “gets shit done” in Silverton. Blank stare again. A few leering eyes follow me as I strike out of the Steam And Steel Cafe with a big, hot cup of coffee. Right then, I’m stopped dead in my tracks.
Pale rays of the early-morning sun cast a golden blush on the peaks and rocky faces that loom above town. The peaks of the San Juans are huge -14,000-footers many of them-jutting up into the clouds. I stand alone in front of the café, coffee in hand, steam billowing from my gape as I stare up at the alpine, awestruck. It’s powder paradise. But actually, I’m here for the halfpipe.
I’m pretty sure nobody in this town is aware that Shaun White is here-has been here for a week-riding the most incredible halfpipe ever constructed. I figure the locals must live here for the powder or the solitude. Either way, they’ve got a lot of both. All over town, sleeping bodies are still buried beneath blankets. It’ll be hours before we meet up with Shaun and his entourage to see his secret pipe training facility in the backcountry at Silverton Mountain. It’s a strangely vacant scene-it occurs to me then that the road leading Shaun White to the Olympics in Vancouver begins here.
“Try not to rock the heli when you get out!” Silverton Mountain owner Aaron Brill shouts, hopping down into the snow, lost in the white cloud of rotor wash. It’s the last thing I hear before yanking off the headset and inching my way out of the Red Bull helicopter-I didn’t even know we’d landed. When I step down onto the apex of a narrow spine, I realize the heli actually hasn’t landed. The pilot has heeled-in, meaning the heli skids are just sorta resting on this spine. Once we’re all out, the heli peels away from the face. The hulk of Storm Peak hangs above us, and below, spines and narrow chutes spill down into a vast bowl. As far the eye can see and beyond, the horizon is crowded with peaks. I realize I’m straddling a spine narrower than the stance on my board that drops off sheer on both sides, so I tune in to the guide’s instructions. Thousands of feet below we can clearly see Shaun’s pipe. Ants are running around down there-there’s a weird black box at the end of the frontside wall-that must the foam pit we heard about. They were serious-a foam pit. Our guide Aaron tells us to drop one at a time and head for the pipe at the bottom. I point it down the fall line and rip a sequence of blower pow turns that, impossibly, spit me out above a perfectly sculpted Superpipe.
Down in the sunshine, this monster U-tube is warming up nicely. Shaun is taking runs and getting a snowmobile tow back to the top, meanwhile a crew of about fifteen people all run around doing their part to help keep the session on track. There are a handful of filmers, all in position. A couple of the new RED digital cameras are aimed at the frontside wall. A gang of people are gathered at the bottom of the pipe-Shaun’s assistant, “Angelface,” scrambles around making herself useful-applying sunscreen on Shaun and peeling bananas for him between runs. On top of that, she unstraps his bindings after each time he launches into the foam pit. Before I start laughing at Shaun’s entourage, I remind myself he’s earned all this support. This is his pipe after all. As an Olympic gold medalist, the likely contender for the Vancouver Games, and the most dominant pipe rider in sport, you get what you need. Your sponsors expect you to perform, so they build you a private pipe, and yeah, you get your bananas peeled for you. Especially when you’re stomping tricks in the pipe that have never been done before. Think about that: tricks never done before. One thing is sure, no matter how much “help” he has on the scene, nobody is gonna land these tricks for him. That’s up to him-and the pressure in the air is palpable.
Among the crew I spot Red Bull’s Joe Prebich, who hatched Shaun’s fantasy pipe idea and made it into reality. He’s cheerleading and solving technical problems. Astride a parked sled, I see legendary halfpipe builder from Snow Park Technologies, Franks Wells. I instantly begin plying him for info on building this crazy pipe.
“The reason we chose this location is basically because pipes are changing, we’re in to the 22-footer now-so we re-created the X Games pipe-the width, the grade, everything-and then added in the foam pit. It’s 540 feet long and the transition radius of the walls is 22 feet. To build this, we needed a private location where we could get enough snow-we couldn’t go to a typical ski area because obviously they can’t commit these kind of resources for just one athlete. Here, we were able to come in-and with the commitment from Red Bull-make it happen. We found the perfect spot with the snow we needed, no public access, and lots of sun. It took us about three weeks to push all this avalanche debris into a pipe,” Wells explains. Shaun readies himself to drop and the assembled crew goes silent-the only sound comes from speakers blaring out of a parked snowcat. He’s dropping into one hits, trying alley-oop backside double-rodeos.
“Let’s see if he gets it this time,” Frank says. Then, “Perfect!” he screams. And says back to me, “And this is why we are here.” Shaun lands softly, base-down in the foam pit.
In the last Olympics, Shaun won the halfpipe gold medal with this run: Lein melon on the first hit, then McTwist, a frontside 1080, a Cab ten, a frontside 900, and finished it off with a backside nine. What will it take to win this time around is anyone’s guess, but Shaun’s betting on the doubles-and going all in. He slides down from the foam pit for a break and I descend like a vulture for the impromptu alley-oop double-rodeo interview:
How long have you been working on this trick?
I’d say about a day and a half. I learned the front double cork and tried it a little-four hits maybe. And then I learned the switch back nine cork and got it in maybe ten hits after that.
What’s the critical spot in the trick?
Takeoff-know what I mean? It’s all the commit. The other critical point is when you come around to the point where you normally land and you tuck for that second time. It’s kind of like a little bit of a backflip into an alley-oop McTwist. But the way it comes in is just so landable. It just puts itself down for you. The nice part is I can trust the foam.
So the foam pit is working out pretty well?
Yeah, I’ve got two tricks in three days. New ones.
I’ve never done ‘em and I don’t think I’ve seen anybody do ‘em.
Which of these new ones feels the sketchiest?
They’re all the same, it’s just that second thing-the flip or cork or whatever. It’s not as hard as I would have thought, but, dude, I got a foam pit. Being able to hit my head and then adjust the throw gives me everything I need to know. Mostly. I can be like, “Well that didn’t work at all,” so I need to do this or I can be like, “You know what” That was dead on.” First day into the pit I was throwing the front double cork. That’s why the next day I landed it. At first I was most scared of missing the foam pit, you know? Like landing next to it on the ground.
Since you started hitting it, has it opened up your mind to new possibilities?
For sure. I have some other stuff I want to try on the backside wall. The triple would be ridiculous-it’d be too much. I’m trying to think-I had pictured the front double cork going a different way. I pictured it going all the way to seven, like an over-rotated front seven into like switch backflip or rodeo, kind of. I’m pretty sure that would put you at twelve, so that one’s pretty ridiculous. This one comes out seven, then the nine and ten are like a corked-out frontflip.
Shaun skates off to check the video shot on the monitor with filmer Sean Aaron. Earlier in the morning, Aaron explained the progress of the shoot: “Shaun’s a machine. He’s trying tricks for the first time into the pit in the morning and then stomping them on the pipe wall by that same afternoon.”
Some adjustments are made to Shaun’s bindings while cameras reposition. Over in the shade of a pop-up tent, the invited media-a writer from ESPN magazine and two staffers from USA Today-observe. Angelface tosses a few stray foam blocks back into the pit. It would appear that the foam pit is a proven pipe training tool, but Wells explains, “To my knowledge this is the first foam pit on snow anywhere on the planet. You know, it’s huge, considering we had to drag it up here on a backcountry road in Colorado, but when Shaun first saw it, I think it seemed a little small-like a postage stamp. The design came from discussions among the guys at our SPT jib factory. Basically, what we’ve done is-you can see how it’s the last hit of the pipe-we created a completely flat pad, and then positioned the foam pit, which is about six feet below the pipe. If you draw out a line from where Shaun’s hitting it now, it follows what would be the lip of the pipe. We added a line of caution tape to represent the lip so Shaun’s able to see where he’s going-so he’s not just flipping into the abyss. And his skill level is so high, that after the first day, we knew it was all gonna work out-now he feels like it’s a huge target for him to hit.”
Shaun’s solo session carries on for a few more hours-a dozen attempts at the alley-oop double back rodeo-this time, playing for keeps-doing them on the regular pipe wall. He brings a few in and gets pretty damn close, but doesn’t quite reel in the clean, stomped landing he was trying for. Before the whole show shuts down, I throw one more question at Shaun, asking if he’s got names for any of his new tricks. “The White Snake? I don’t know, Long Dong Silver would be a good name,” he says mock seriously and then cracks up laughing.
And his humor strikes a chord. This kid-with the pressure of a half-million-dollar pipe shoot all on his back, the weight of defending his Olympic gold medal in Vancouver, and the rest of the baggage that comes with being the “coolest kid in America”-seems to actually enjoy the pressure.
Seriously, Long Dong Silver? I see the guy from USA Today scribble the trick name down in his notebook and I feel a deep sense of pride in snowboarding. No matter what happens in that Cypress Mountain pipe come February 17, Shaun White is a champ.
Shaun’s new tricks:
- Frontside 1080 double-cork. Other riders have been doing this trick off jumps, but never in the pipe-until now.
- Cab 1080 double-cork. The regular Cab ten has been in Shaun’s bag for a while, but adding that second cork definitely ups the ante.
- Switch backside 900 late cork. You could call this one the Dream Smasher, because that is what will when happen when Shaun starts dropping this mutation of a switch double McTwist in contests.
- Alley-oop double backside rodeo. He’s not claiming this one yet, but you’ve seen his alley-oop backside rodeo before-double that.
Follow this link HERE to check out the first video releases from what is being called Project X—the secret Shaun White/Silverton Pipe Session