Man-Made Mayhem: Building The Perfect Park

Ever wonder why the jumps in the park can suck one day and be perfect the next? Well, while you’re nestled cozy in your flannel sheets, dreaming of sticking your next (or first) 540, the snowboard park crew is rocking out to Metallica and pushing snow with their machines.

To see the creation of a perfect park jump, Chris “Gunny” Gunnarson, Snow Summit’s snowboard director, resident park guru, and world-renowned expert snow-mover took me for a ride. It was the eve of the most important slopestyle contest of the year, TransWorld SNOWboarding’s Team Challenge. Over 100 riders sat in hotel rooms, icing body parts, and visualizing their lines while Gunny methodically went over all their “input” from the day’s practice session. His crew of three cat drivers and one halfpipe cutter had their work cut out for them. The snow conditions were sketchy and the world’s top riders were counting on a flawless park.

Typically, the maintenance staff works from dusk ’til dawn (on better nights they may get off work at 2:00 a.m.), but I opted for a shorter, one-hour preview. That was just enough time for Gunny, his trusty Bombardier snowcat, and I to reshape one jump¿the Gunslinger. Set off slightly from the others, it was a monster with a hero kick in the lip, launching to a low, rolling landing. “This is going to be the Hollywood shot,” Gunny remarked slyly.

With the heater blazing and the radio pumping, Gunny tilled and smoothed the run-in, reconstructed the lip, and smoothed out the landing. “I’m making this takeoff a little mellower, it was a little bit too steep today,” he said.

I listened to Gunny explain the finer points of driving a cat and building a park as the cab swayed and the engine grunted. Park building is more than just packing snow in a mound and calling it a jump. There’re tons of factors to consider, such as the pitch of the run, the natural features, and, of course, snowpack. “With snowmaking we can control pretty well where the snow is,” Gunny said, “but you tend to build up more snow in some areas than others. So you have to figure out how much snow you’re going to have for a particular area. Some of the stuff we know works really well we’ll build up in dirt for the snow to coat, like some of the hip jumps, some of the landings, we’ve just enhanced the terrain in dirt in summertime.”

The snowcat shook furiously as he backed up and pushed snow at angles close to 90 degrees. “Almost all the cats we use here are Bombardiers, which by are far the best type of cats to use for parks because of their maneuverability, the best tiller a row of blades that churn up the snow, and the best type of blade functions for different snow conditions,” Gunny explained.

A perfectionist at heart, Gunny admitted that sometimes he wakes up in the wee hours with an image of the perfect jump. Because he wanted the Gunslinger to be all-time for the contest the following day, he smoothed and caressed and molded until he was satisfied. “I have my own special technique,” he said. “Some people do it different, but this is the winning combo right here. I put my tiller bar just on this downhill side of the lip and then groom it. Sometimes you go slower. In softer snow conditions I can reduce the speed of the tiller bar because right now it’s running really fast. Other times I’ll have it run a little bit slower so it doesn’t wear it the snow down as fast. One of the most important things to do is go back and look at it. If it’s not right, redo it.”

It took just under an hour to create “our” masterpiece. Before taking me back to the catdepot, Gunny pulled up alongside the jump and asked, “What do you think?” I felt a sense of overwhelming pride, mixed with anticipation. Guys would be hucking themselves off this tomorrow, spinning and twisting, performing death-defying acrobatics. My response was critical.

“It looks … scary,” I said.

Gunny let out a slightly maniacal snicker and replied, “Good.” The next day I sat next too my jump and proudly awaited the aerial assault. Two hours of competition, and not a single rider hit it. I guess they were scared, too.

I went back to Snow Summit a month later. The contest was long over, but the Gunslinger remained. Though the intense spring sun of Southern California had nearly dissolved the work of art, up on closer inspection I saw a few lines going up and off the jump. I smiled and thought, “I made that.”