Aspen Skiing Co.’s invisible army prepares Buttermilk venue for X Games
January 22, 2019
When a snowstorm rolled through the Roaring Fork Valley on Monday afternoon, Yannick Rioux and his crew knew it meant an early and active time at the Winter X Games venue Tuesday.
Rioux is Aspen Skiing Co.'s terrain parks director at Buttermilk and Snowmass. His crew is a vital part of the team responsible for building and maintaining the courses for the X Games slopestyle, superpipe and big air competitions.
"When it's sunny, it's easy," Rioux said of the preparations. When it snows, it's all hands on deck for his crew. Some folks attended to the thankless task of shoveling snow off the 585-long, 3-foot wide deck of the superpipe. The big focus was raking the slopestyle course to make it safe for the athletes who started training runs at 9 a.m.
"Usually we come in at 7 a.m. Today we were here at 6 a.m.," Rioux said at the top of the slopestyle course Tuesday morning.
The parks and pipes crews at Buttermilk and Snowmass are among the best in the country. The two resorts regularly rank in the top 10 in park and pipe rankings in publications such as Free Rider and Transworld Snowboarding.
When the Winter X Games come around, they face added pressure. It's sort of like an NFL stadium crew preparing for the Super Bowl. The Games will be held Thursday through Sunday and training is underway.
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The pipes and parks crew is part of an invisible army of Aspen Skiing Co. workers needed to pull off the X Games, said Buttermilk Mountain Manager Travis Benson. Aspen Skiing Co. executives decided years ago that the investment in time and effort was worth it because X Games is so important to its business model.
So, ski instructors short on students might be enlisted to cart competitors, media and organizers around the slopes via snowmobile. More than 50 people are needed during the games to drive sleds or utility snowcats, according to Buck Erickson, Skico director of event operations.
"It's getting everyone where they need to be," he said.
Another 15 to 20 workers are assigned to install more than 2 miles of fencing around the venue. Parking at Buttermilk and the Intercept Lot requires 12 to 15 workers. More than 100 Skico food and beverage workers shift from their regular jobs to help with catering, VIP venues and at Bumps restaurant at the Buttermilk base. Ski patrol provides the first response at the courses. Lift maintenance chipped in by taking the chairs off the Panda Peak lift to enlarge the event venue.
And, of course, it all starts early in the season with the snowmakers building mounds of snow to spread across the venue and shape into features on the courses.
Skico partners with ESPN on a lot of the duties, with both parties providing significant staffing, Erickson said. Often times, workers are transferred temporarily from another hill.
"Everybody has to adjust," Rioux said. "It's a team effort."
The team effort includes Snow Park Technologies, which ESPN hires to help build the courses. A machine called a Zaugg does much of the work on the superpipe. Rioux's crew provides finishing touches by hand.
On the slopestyle course, snowcats heap snow in front of rails and then the parks crew molds it into shape. During training and competitions, they will stick close by to perform any necessary course maintenance.
Rioux brings some of the Snowmass crew over during the Games to assist. He will have about 13 workers on hand every day through Sunday. They start at 7 a.m. — earlier if it snows — and stay on until evening competitions are completed.
While attending to the X Games courses, the crews also must keep the public terrain parks and pipes maintained.
"They're allowed to have one day off this week," Rioux said.
For the competitions, Rioux hopes for sunny, dry and cold days to keep the courses in the best shape and to provide the best daytime light for the competitors. Some of the biggest events are held under the lights at night to try to create equal and optimal conditions for competitors.
Most of the crew members are in their 20s, so they can handle the short, intense schedule. It's all about pride in doing a job well.
"It's passion," Rioux said. "That's what I ask from my guys is passion and commitment."
(Editor’s note: This story was edited to clarify staffing provided by Aspen Skiing Co. and ESPN.)