By Lee Crane, 1996 TransWorld SNOWboarding
The search for the origins of the snowboard halfpipe take us into the past, beyond snowboarding and skateboarding, to the fluid ocean wave. Its shape and power are ultimately responsible for creating the modern snowboard halfpipe.
The fluidity of water is reflected in the shape of the structures man has used to control it. Pipes, dams, swimming pools, and drainage ditches all have smooth flowing lines because water has the tendency to wear off any rough edges man builds.
By 1975 skateboarders had progressed from riding downhill on flat streets to riding the flowing lines of drainage ditches, and swimming pools, but they were still searching for that perfect transition. In the full-pipe they found it. The halfpipe was a popular item at skateboard parks in the mid-70sbecause it was the transition of a wave, or pool distilled down to its most simple form.
When skateboarders and surfers began riding snowboards in the late 1970’s they searched for the same kind of terrain they enjoyed riding on their skate and surfboards. In nature, thanks to the work of gravity, water, and wind,flowing and smooth transitions are very common. Snow covered creek beds look a lot like frozen waves, or drainage ditches, so snowboarders began seeking them out.
In 1978, resorts in California’s Lake Tahoe basin hadn’t realized snowboarding’s potential and refused to allow snowboards on their mountains. Because of this, snowboarders spent most of their free time searching for good spots to ride. “Back then not everyone in high school had cars so we needed places to ride that were close by,” remembers 29-year-old Tahoe local Bob Klein.
Klein’s friend Mark Anolik was hiking around Tahoe City in 1979 when he discovered the perfect hit on land owned by the Tahoe-Truckee Sanitation Company. It was literally the city dump. No one is quite sure if the spot was a bend in a creek bed, or the edge of the landfill. It had an entry and a couple hits, which was all these snowboard pioneers needed. Word of the pipe spread and within a few days Mark, Bob Klein, Allen Arnbrister, and Terry Kidwell were beginning to session the spot. They named it the Tahoe City Pipe.
By the spring of 1980, thanks to a local phone company employee and skateboard fanatic named Mike Chantry, the pipe was exposed to the skateboard world.”Mike Chantry took me there nearly blindfolded because Bob Klein didn’t want anyone to find out about it,” remembers Tom Sims, founder of Sims Snowboards.”What’s wrong with other snowboarders finding the pipe. At that time there weren’t even that many snowboarders in the world, let alone riding the Tahoe City Pipe.”
Over the next few years pro skateboarders Rob Roskopp, Steve Cabellero, and Scott Foss began visiting the pipe. Lensmen from Thrasher magazine and later International Snowboard Magazine were close behind, not as much for the pipe, but because of the people who were there.
By today’s standards the Tahoe City Halfpipe was not even a halfpipe. “The pipe itself was really just one-hit,” Chantry says. “To make it good took a lot of shoveling.”
That didn’t seem to bother Terry Kidwell or Allen Arnbrister. “Once Kidwell and Arnbrister got into it, it became more of shaping thing,” Klein explains.”They would spend more time shaping it than riding.”
At the time, the idea of building a snowboard halfpipe to match the dimensions of a skateboard halfpipe hadn’t seemed possible. And the snowboard equipment in the early 80s didn’t help that progression either. “We were on boards with bungees for bindings so we were most interested in dropping in and going up the other wall,” Klein says. “It wasn’t really about air.”
Keith Kimmel moved from Burlington, Vermont to Tahoe City in the fall of1983. Tom Sims had given Keith Mike Chantry’s phone number when Keith got to Tahoe Mike showed him the pipe. “It was only half a block from where I lived,” Keith says. “So I used to ride it all the time by myself. That’s where I met Terry and Allen and we started planing sessions.” Keith later showed up on the cover of the first issue of Absolutely Radical, riding the Tahoe City Pipe.
Around 1982 Eddie Hargraves and his brother Cary began riding a natural quarterpipe across the road from Sugar Bowl resort, near California’s Donner Summit. Joel Gomez, now the owner of Sessions Snowboard Shop, and Mike Chantry were snowboard instructors at Soda Springs at the time and would often drive over to ride the pipe.
Damian Sanders and Shaun Palmer also rode the Donner Quarterpipe quite a bit. Both were riding for Avalanche Snowboards at the time. “The starting wall was just a big hillside,” Keith Kimmel explains. “At the Tahoe City Pipe there was a limit. We had to build up the starting platform to get extra speed, but at the Donner Halfpipe you go hike as high as you wanted.”
These hits, or pipes as riders called them were nothing more than modified natural terrain. It wasn’t until 1983 when Tom Sims organized the first World Championships at Soda Springs, California that man-made halfpipe was constructed at a resort. It was the first snowboard halfpipe contest.
“I hired Chantry to help me lobby Soda Springs management into building a halfpipe,” Tom Sims says. “They built the pipe, but it was not good. I was extremely disappointed. Then the Burton Team threatened to boycott the contest because they felt that halfpipe riding had nothing to do with snowboarding.”
Apparently, the first contest was extremely important to Jake Carpenter and Tom Sims. It was a battle between the West Coast skateboarders and the East Coast Snurfers. The Sims riders had been riding pipes for three years, and the Burton riders had been racing. When the two groups got together there were sparks.
“The pipe was horrible,” says Keith Kimmel, who couldn’t afford the entry fee. “It was basically two rows of snow chunks. And the chunks were only about four feet high.”
The riders, who had been shaping hits in the forest for several years knew what they wanted in a pipe, however it was difficult communicating those needs with the people at the resorts. The Soda Springs pipe was placed too high on the mountain where the slope was steep and riders had a hard time controlling their speed. While it may not have been the dream pipe everyone hoped for, it was a starting point. The idea that someone with a snowcat could shape a rideable halfpipe got many people thinking.
In ’84 and ’85 the Soda Springs World’s pipe was on the lower part of the mountain where the slope was less steep and riders were able to boost air. Due to the success of Soda Springs’ pipe Slide Mountain, Nevada, a resort on the eastern side of Lake Tahoe built a pipe.
A VORTEX SHIFT TO COLORADO
By 1986, when the World Championship contest moved from Soda Springs, California to Breckenridge, Colorado things began to progress. Dave Alden, with help from his father Paul, convinced Breckenridge Ski Resort to to help them build a pipe. The resort employees didn’t know what they were building. “Dave and I go in and meet with the management and convince them that the halfpipe was not a speed event,” remembers Fran Richards, who is the former marketing manager at TransWorld SNOWboarding Magazine. “They thought it was an Alpine event and they wanted us to wear helmets.”
The pipe that Breckenridge and Dave Alden built was short and wide. It was about 150 feet long, 60 feet wide with walls about five feet high and no vertical, but it was better than the pipes at Soda Springs. Breckenridge’s commitment to the halfpipe, however, pulled the vortex of halfpipe riding from California, to Colorado.
That same year, two other pipes appeared in Colorado. One at Berthoud Pass and another at Wolf Creek for the Southwest Snowsurfers Association contest organized by Mike Maynard. So far none of the resorts had built a permanent pipe. The pipes were only built for contests.
When the Worlds contest returned to Breckenridge in 1987, the location of the pipe moved from Peak 8 to Peak 9, where it has remained. Nearly everyone agrees that the Worlds pipe at Breckenridge April 2-5, 1987 was the best pipe up to that point in the history of snowboarding. It was about 200 feet long, 40 feet wide, with four-foot wide roll-out decks on either side, six foot high walls that nearly went to vertical, “and a tree on the bottom right side that Rob Morrow hit during his run,” adds Tina Basich. The pipe was left for people to ride, and it became the first permanent snowboard pipe at a resort.
RESORTS HOOK UP
By 1988 halfpipes had become media magnets. Every magazine and television show wanted to do a story about “those wild snowboarders who ride in halfpipes made of snow.” Because of this resorts realized that in order to attract snowboarders they would need to build halfpipes.
In the spring of 1988, Jake Burton decided that after six years without a halfpipe it was finally time for U.S. Open at Stratton to have a halfpipe champion. Halfpipe had become a very important part of snowboarding competition.
Later, in the summer of 1988, Snow Summit and June Mountain in California; and Waterville Valley, New Hampshire decided to build permanent halfpipes. All three resorts chose to shape the pipes by moving dirt into the shape of the pipe and letting the snow fall in during the winter. It seemed like a good idea. Snow Summit used blueprints drawn up by Tom Sims. Eric Webster helped out at Waterville Valley, and June Mountain worked with some local snowboarders and Ronnie McCoy, the grandson of Mammoth Mountain’s owner.
Come winter the “in-the-ground” halfpipe idea, which seemed so logical during the summer, didn’t seem as functional as everyone had hoped. During the early season with two to three feet of snow on the pipe it looked good and was easy to maintain, however as the snow piled up the pipes began to fill in and it became difficult for cat drivers to know where the dirt walls were.Occasionally they would gouge the wall with their blade and uncover dirt.The dirt would heat up in the sun, then freeze at night leaving icy spots on the walls.
The June Mountain’s halfpipe had problems all its own. To build the vertical walls June Mountain employees stacked bales of hay and covered them with snow. Unfortunately, during the 1989 Op Pro at June Mountain the hay self-combusted and began smoldering under the snow. Smoke began billowing from black holes that had melted into the walls. Photographer Bud Fawcett was shooting in the pipe and actually fell through up to his knees. The contest went off anyway.
In Colorado, Breckenridge continued to make pipes the way they always had,by using cats to build a long pile of snow and then dig the halfpipe outof the middle and hand shape the rest. Again, in 1989 the Breckenridge pipe was called “the finest pipe of the year,” by TransWorld SNOWboarding magazine.It was approximately 300 feet long, forty feet lip-to-lip, and had two large tombstones at the top of the pipe.
At Stratton Mountain, master halfpipe builder Lyle Blazedale had built anew shovel for his backhoe and Stratton became a real player in the halfpipe world. The only real competition Stratton and Breckenridge had came from a tiny resort located outside Madison, Wisconsin called Tyrol Basin, and the 1991 Victoria Japan Snowboard World Cup contest at Rusutsu Resort, Japan.
In 1990, with little more than a hill and only two lifts, Don McKay, Tyrol’s general manager decided to build the best pipe in the world. He and mountain manager Dave Rogers blew snow and shaped a perfect, 400-foot-long World Cup regulation halfpipe. Riders like Dale Rehberg, Nate Cole, Jake Blattner,and Joe Curtes told everyone how great the pipe was, but few believed it was possible. Then in June of 1993, Tyrol held a halfpipe contest and the world discovered this secret spot.
The Rusutsu halfpipe was truly a World Cup Pipe. “The snow had a little dirt in it is,” says Jimi Scott. “But that was one of the best pipes I’ve ever ridden.”
The builders of the pipe used surveying equipment, and a backhoe to build the pipe exactly to the dimensions published in the International Snowboard Federation Rule book. Even though much of the snow had to be trucked in from the surrounding hillsides, the halfpipe was perfect, if a little brown.
What the pipes at Tyrol Basin and Rusutsu Resort proved is that when a resort supports halfpipe building, a perfect pipe can show up anywhere, even if here isn’t a lot of snow.
THE 90S AND BEYOND
In 1991 halfpipe building reached the machine age when Doug Waugh, a farm-machinery mechanic from Colorado unveiled his Pipe Dragon. The machine is specially designed slope groomer on a curve. Towed behind a snowcat the Pipe Dragon can groom the walls of a pipe perfectly smooth. The machine was used at Vail, Eldora, Snowmass, Buttermilk, and Copper Mountain with success. One thing was for sure: the Pipe Dragon made it much easier for some resorts to maintain their halfpipes, however, the machine had limited adjustability as far as the transitions were concerned and many riders felt the radius of the pipe was too small, making it difficult to get a lot of air. “It was like skating the shallow end of a swimming pool,” said past world halfpipe champion Jeff Brushie.
Interest in halfpipe riding seemed to drop off after 1991. Whether it was the poorly designed pipes of the Professional Snowboard Tour of America, or the inconsistent judging, many snowboarders were bummed about riding pipes and began riding picnic tables, slider bars and fun boxes. It was the beginning of the New School invasion.
Jimi Scott, the 1993 ISF World Cup Halfpipe Champion, believes this happened because resorts have not kept their pipes up, not because people don’t like riding the pipe. “I know that if people had good, consistent pipes to ride in that a lot more people would still be riding the pipe,” Jimi says.
“Everyone I ride with says pipes are the shit,” says Jeff Brushie, 1991 WorldCup Halfpipe Champion. “I don’t think pipe riding will go out. It’s not like skating. On a skateboard you can take your feet of the board and learn 100s of street tricks. But when you’re not in the pipe on snowboards all you can do is spin more.”
Jeff and Jimi agree that if vertical snowboarding is going to progress the terrain needs to progress along with it. Sure, the best riders in the world can ride any pipe, no matter how poorly designed it is, however with perfect pipes the sky is the limit.
Most snowboarders say they’d love to ride halfpipes a lot more if resorts would build good ones. Snowboard halfpipes have been around for 10 years and like Jeff Brushie says, they won’t go away. It’s up to the resorts to decide whether they believe halfpipes will work. Resorts are in the business of making money, and if they think a good halfpipe will help them make more money then they’ll build one. Which brings it down to one thing: support your local halfpipe.