Saturday’s scene at Vail’s halfpipe is just the kind of thanks Doug Waugh likes, a Berthoud, Colo., organic farmer who invented a grooming machine that makes for smooth sailing for Colorado’s growing horde of snowboarders.
More than 100 weekend snowboarders were pulling big air off freshly groomed 10-foot walls of snow and ice. With snowboarders accounting for about 12 percent of Colorado’s skier visits, halfpipes are the centerpieces to terrain parks that ski resorts like Vail are showcasing to attract snowboarders. And Waugh’s Pipe Dragon, a grooming machine he invented in the late 1980s and now markets worldwide, helps resorts keep halfpipes as smooth and consistent as their ski runs.
“The Pipe Dragon is a finishing machine. Even in a week, you get super hard-ice conditions. That’s why the snowboarders want to see it groomed,” says Waugh.
Just two days before the weekend rush, Waugh helped Vail Associates crews perform their weekly grooming ritual in Vail Mountain’s 300-foot-long, 50-foot-wide halfpipe. Using Waugh’s Pipe Dragon, halfpipe crews smoothed over ruts and cut fresh banks that are essential for consistent turns and smooth landings for freestyle snowboarders.
“The real test comes with the snowboarders. When they say they love the halfpipe, then I know we’re doing our job,” says Waugh, who spends his summers growing fresh vegetables at his 75-acre farm east of Boulder and winters traveling the globe promoting his Pipe Dragon.
Buildling a halfpipe pipes is labor-intensive. It takes weeks of snowmaking efforts to build up the snow mounds and several days to cut the basic shape of the halfpipe. That’s where the Pipe Dragon comes in. “The days of giving the guys a shovel and a rake are gone. You’ve got to do it mechanically,” Waugh said.
What looks like a piece of farm machinery, the 15-foot Pipe Dragon is pulled and powered by a snowcat. It has an auger and series of shovels on a rotating wheel that dig out snow from the bottom of the halfpipe and shape the walls.
It took most of the day for Vail’s crews to groom the halfpipe. Vail was one of Waugh’s first clients and now the ski resort has its own Pipe Dragon. After contracting with Waugh for five years to groom its halfpipe once a month, Vail bought a Pipe Dragon this summer and expanded its halfpipe menu to include two pipes at Vail and a new one at Beaver Creek Creek.
Vail Associates’ snowboard director Ray Sforzo remembers the first time he saw the Pipe Dragon. “We all laughed at first. One of the cat drivers joked that he wondered if anything was going to grow. It looked like a piece of farm machinery,” says Sforzo, who heads up the largest snowboarding instruction school in the world at Vail. “He made a few cuts and I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘That’s what it’s all about.’ It gives you that perfect transfer to vertical,” Sforzo says.
Sforzo, a snowboarding veteran who started riding 15 years ago, says it used take a week to smooth out the halfpipe. He said the ski company has also tested other halfpipe grooming machines, but nothing compared with the consistency the Pipe Dragon provided.
For Waugh, who just started snowboarding last winter, getting into the snowboarding business was an accident. After working 15 years as an engineer and manager in the manufacturing industry, the Wisconsin native who grew up on a farm wanted to be his own boss.
He went back to his roots and bought a 75-acre farm just outside of Berthoud in the early 1980s. He saw the growing trend in organic farming and converted his land to organic farming methods. He found himself busy in the summers, but bored in the winters. In 1989, he started doing contract work with Maxey Manufacturing in Fort Collins, which was working on one of the first prototypes for a halfpipe grooming machine.
“I really had a feel for this thing,” Waugh says. “I worked for free. When it broke down, I would fix it. The next year we started with an idea and I wanted to prove it.”
Althoughh it had a working model up and running at Eldora ski resort west of Boulder, Maxey didn’t think snowboarding would take off. Waugh trusted his instincts, and with the help of a venture capitalist, purchased the rights to the machine in 1992.
He made a few modifications to the design, came up with the name Pipe Dragon and built the first model on his farm. He started contract grooming at Vail, Snowmass and at resorts in the Midwest and California. But he wanted to sell the machines, not spend his days grooming resort’s halfpipes.
He spends weeks on the road, promoting the product, attending trade shows and showing skeptical resort officials that it really works. Sales have doubled each year over the past three years. This fall he ventured to Europe for the first time and made two quick sales. So far, he’s sold 24 Pipe Dragons at $37,500 each to resorts in the United States as well as in Japan, Canada and Europe. “I’ve zoned in on a little niche and that little niche has grown to dominate my life,” says Waugh. “I’ll ride the wave as big as I can and as long as I can.”
With the continued growth of snowboarding and the announcement that the halfpipe will be an Olympic event in Nagano, Japan, in 1998, Waugh sees a bright future for the Pipe Dragon and for halfpipes.
“There was a lot of thought in the industry that the halfpipe is not a key component and that we can get by without it,” says Waugh. “Everybody in the industry is trying to maintain market share. One way to really cater to snowboarders is to have a halfpipe,” he says.
From the looks of it, everyone at Vail’s halfpipe seems to agree. For more information, call 970-532-2590.