Aspen Times Weekly: Building the Perfect Pipe
It’s 10:15 a.m. on a frigid morning seven days before the Winter X Games kick off in Aspen. Frank Wells fires up his snowcat at the base of Buttermilk and moves it into position behind another cat at the upper mouth of the huge super pipe looming over the base area.
He exits the cozy cab and hooks a thick cable onto the second, stationary cat, which in this case is called a “dead man.” Back in the cab, he flip a lever to feed out cable from his cat’s winch and he slowly inches down the steep embankment of the half pipe. Without being anchored to the stationary cat, Wells’ machine would be slipping on the steep pitch.
Instead of a blade out front, Wells’ cat sports a bizarre piece of equipment that looks like the upraised tail and hindquarters of a scorpion when it is angry. The asymmetrical contraption hugs the 22-foot sides of the pipe. An auger runs the distance of the mechanism and shaves off an inch or two of snow with each pass Wells makes. The snow is fed to a blower that spits it to the floor of the pipe for later compaction.
Patience and a keen eye helped Wells become an expert super pipe sculptor for Snow Park Technologies, a Reno, Nevada-based firm that has been contracted by the Winter X Games since 1997 to build the terrain features for the competition.
The pipe is about 570 feet long, 70 feet wide and 22 feet tall and an 18-degree pitch. It’s the eye-grabbing terrain feature of the games. Crowds will swarm around it for the men’s and women’s half-pipe events, the signature competitions of the games.
Wells previously used a chain saw to cut in the hard, compacted sides of the pipe to mark how much he needs to shave off the sides to achieve the perfect shape. The cut and rope guide him like a carpenter depends on a chalk line.
Wells will make pass after pass with the Zaugg. A regular blade will be used to compact the bottom of the pipe. All told, it will take between 350 and 400 snowcat hours to sculpt the masterpiece.
Once finished, he will maintain the pipe to keep it the same through practices and competitions. “Any change would really throw things off,” Wells said.
He draws on his experience as a professional snowboarder in the late 1990s and into the 2000s to build the perfect pipe. Even while he was a competitor, he would ride along in the cat working on pipes and offer advice to Snow Park Technologies before joining them full time.
“I knew my calling was building them,” Wells said. Doing the work helps him stay “relevant in the sport.”
Despite the cold temperature on this morning, the sky is a dazzling blue and the sun is warming the snow surface fast. The cold nights and warms days leading up the X Games Jan. 22-25 have been perfect, according to Wells. Cutting on a day when the sun is intense creates a firmer, icier surface, which is ideal, he said. And the bright sun gives him the “perfect visibility” he needs for fine-tuning.
Normally, the pipe would have been finished and available to the snowboard-riding customers visiting Buttermilk starting during the busy holiday period. But a 16-day warm and dry spell in early December prevented the crews from Snow Park Technologies and Aspen Skiing Co. from getting their usual jump. Even snowmaking was impeded by the warm nights.
“The warm spell earlier this year was definitely a curve ball for us,” Wells said. “The fact that Aspen Skiing Company is such a world-class resort with their snowmaking, cats and staffing is the only reason we were able to pull this off.”
Snow Park Technologies brought in four snowcats of its own, rented seven others and borrowed two of Skico’s to accomplish its work. The company teamed with manufacturer Prinoth on a prototype cat specially equipped for the work required in the terrain parks.
Wells’ snowcat is incredibly quiet as he inches his way down the steep slope. The Zaugg emits a low, droning noise when the auger is turned on. Wells will make numerous patient pass after patient pass, shaving the sides of the pipe to perfection — like a craftsman sculpting a bowl.
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.