Looking Up the Skirt of Terrain Park Design

Terrain park design has seen just as much progression as snowboarding itself, with plenty of room to run.

This article originally appeared in the Crafted section of the December 2014 issue of Transworld SNOWboarding. Subscribe here.

Remember the days when halfpipe lips were cut with chalk line and a chainsaw? So does John Rice, General Manager of Sierra-at-Tahoe. Rice wishes he still had the sheet of butcher paper on which Toms Sims drew a giant U-shaped wave in 1989 and asked him to make one out of snow. Along with Bert Lamar, the stealthy trio highjacked the Big Bear’s snow cat at night to push snow into four-foot quarterpipe walls.

They eventually got caught, but these unsanctioned missions were early sparks of the terrain park revolution birthed on the West Coast and reared by Big Bear, which yielded a demand for snowboarding inclusion that resorts couldn’t ignore for long. “Snowboarders didn’t like just riding groomers. They liked to jump off of stuff,” says Rice.

SPT building the course at Peace Pipe. Photo: Chris Wellhausen

Two-and-a-half decades later, we have terrain park-specific laser levels, inclinometers, on-hill welders, and 22-foot Superpipe cutters. The Prinoth Bison XPT snowcat comes equipped with satellite radio and blades that sync up with a cockpit laptop to adjust their angles to the the slope of the hill.

“It’s no longer just the grooming crews doing it all,” says Rice “Now we have specialized equipment operators bringing out lasers to see where the intercepting points are and proprietary models helping us understand how the ballistics shape out on a jump.”

Tillers even have snow density sensors that regulate the amount of applied force and Rice believes that sonar devices for measuring snow depth below—much like the Fishfinder on a boat—are just around the corner.

Another key player who’s been there since the dawn of the method and is largely responsible for the current and future development of terrain park design is Chris “Gunny” Gunnarson, President of Snow Park Technologies (SPT).

Perfecting the pipe at Euro X Games. Photo: Chris Wellhausen

Once SPT knows the scope of their project and the budget, the physical parameters have to be worked out. “We build everything in 3D—typically with a program called Sketchup, which any park crew can download and view,” says Gunny. But weather conditions, temperature change, and other variables are endless when it comes to snow, and standardization of dimensions is impossible. “You can design a perfect jump on a computer and build it exactly to spec on Monday and it might be completely different by Tuesday,” he says, “We also have to account for a seven-year-old girl on skis versus a 22-year-old dude on a snowboard who’s really 100 pounds heavier and rips. It’s hard to make a jump that fits both.”

For this reason, modern terrain park design puts tremendous emphasis on the right combination of expertise. You can’t have physicists building jumps when they don’t ride, just like you can’t have riders building jumps with no understanding of basic physics. And that’s not just for pro-level events. These days, cat drivers need to be just as skilled building 60-foot booters as they are cutting six-inch rollers in Burton’s Star Wars Riglet park.

Building the behemoth. Photo: Chris Wellhausen

“We can’t just get caught up in who’s going to build things bigger and badder,” says Clayton Shoemaker, Big Bear’s Director of Park Development. “We need to have something available for everyone while staying core and progressive for the sport.”

As we creep toward some sort of amplitude ceiling, look for park design to take a more creative direction, experimenting with weird, creative features. Remember, this is still just the beginning.

Check out the ultra creative setup Big Bear crafted for this year’s Hot Dawgz and Handrails event.

Find more about Terrain Park Design here.