Aspen Times Weekly cover story: How the X Games are made |

Aspen Times Weekly cover story: How the X Games are made

Amanda Charles
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Photo by Pavel OsiakCover design by Afton Groepper

ASPEN – You could call it a fairground really, the way this place transforms from season to season. Winter hits and the trucks come big and rolling along our roads; men pour out of them, hauling out tents with long ropes, stages with metal frames, spotlights as tall as cranes, and fixing them deep into the snow at the base of Buttermilk. Stage right, snowcats push and flatten the mountainsides until the terrain glistens like a jewelry store case and the completion of the superpipe, in its daunting stupor, suddenly appears in our peripheral.

Like clockwork, the years have proven Aspen to be a well-oiled machine when the Winter X Games arrive, as it turns into a carnival town with the best acts rolling in, performing to crowds from across the world and then rolling out, without any of us indulgent homebodies knowing exactly how it all happened.

For the 11th consecutive year, ESPN’s Winter X Games returns to Aspen, Jan 26 through the 29, at our beloved Buttermilk Mountain, where more than 100,000 fans are expected to come to watch pro skiers and snowboarders rip shifties, poptarts, cabs, corkscrews, front flips, back flips and grabs at the biggest spectator event of the year. And unlike other seasonal events, X Games doesn’t require a purchased ticket, an age limit or even a height limit to enjoy the ride. Simply show up, eat, drink, watch and enjoy the party.

But because the four full days of merry-go-round pipe carving, snowmobiling and freestyle skiing don’t just happen overnight, and because this year marks the end of the current contract for ESPN’s Winter X Games to be hosted here in Aspen, it only seems fitting to pay our dues to the men behind the curtain – the so-called “carnies” or masterminds who have shown up to make the entire operation a success, year after year.

We’ve all driven past the big dirt mound in the summer; some of us may have even tried to bike down it. But how does that pile of dirt become an 18.5-degree, 22-foot high, 550-foot long and 80-foot wide superpipe by January?

Enter the people from Snow Park Technologies (SPT), the architects and executors of the world’s biggest projects on snow, from parks and halfpipes, to high-profile ski and snowboard competition courses. Partnering with big names like Burton, Red Bull and Oakley, SPT has been a consultant to Aspen and Snowmass since the start: designing, building and maintaining all the parks for the X Games and for recreational use throughout the year.

Resembling something out of the “American Chopper” television series, with muscles bulging through tight T-shirts, bandanas strewn across the forehead and dark glasses shielding the eyes, this year’s SPT crew consists of 11 of the most experienced builders sent out from their base in Reno, Nevada, to take months of sketches and design to the snow.

Working under the trusted leadership of ex-pro snowboarder and pipe-cutting superstar Frank Wells, who began building parks back in 1999, the team arrived on site at Buttermilk in December with their own fleet of nine snowcats (two travel the country with them) and a pair of 22-foot Zaugg pipe cutters.

“We live at Buttermilk for 37 days straight and put in around 12 to 18 hours a day depending,” director of project operations Chris Castaneda said of his team. Since they eat, sleep and work together, Castaneda refers to their work as “quality man time,” and says it’s a good thing they are all friends.

“It’s just us and our toys during these projects,” he said. “We love what we do, but we also enjoy stealing out for an occasional afternoon to go ride, especially the Highlands Bowl.”

Like most jack-of-all-trades, however, SPT’s responsibilities run deep. This year’s course construction itinerary alone includes slopestyle, superpipe, big air, X course, snowmobiling speed and style, freestyle, snowcross, best trick and the street rail jam – enough to keep the designers very busy. When the team isn’t looking down through the windows of a snowcat into the engulfing walls of the 22-foot superpipe, they are also overseeing the Snowboard Sport Organizing for the Games, including athlete selection, judges and scoring criteria.

To many, that doesn’t make sense. It would be like having the company who poured the cement at the Indianapolis 500 to also invite the drivers to the race. But in snowboarding, where the course designers have specific athletes in mind as they design the features, it is more common.

“We follow trends and progression and look for what’s best for the athletes,” Castaneda said. “Most of us are experienced snowboarders ourselves, so if we have to take a chainsaw out to cut the pipe down to the last inch so it’s perfect, we certainly will.”

SPT leaves the chainsaw action to the hands of Frank Wells and Mike Binnel, who construct, cut and perfect the pipe in just 10 days.

All this work has no purpose without snow, which up until recently had all of us in a time capsule expediting our way back to the drought-stricken winter of 1976, cruising over rocks on runs and ravenously flocking to the trails for those last minute fall hikes.

After a chat with Don “Ogre” Paullin at Bumps restaurant, I was reassured that despite what it looks like, the snow is already here. Paullin, otherwise known as “Ogre” by his coworkers, has been making snow on Buttermilk Mountain for the past 30 years, and has served as snowmaking manager for the past 15.

Rather than wallowing with the rest of us at our “pray for snow” parties, Paullin and his team have exceeded Mother Nature’s role by pumping manmade snow on Buttermilk each season, so that the fanatical riders can get their 100 days in, and Winter X Games, no matter the weather, can still go on. His estimate on gallons of snow pumped so far this season: 50 million.

“The ideal temperature for manmade snow is about 10-15 degrees, but it’s a good day if I can start the guns up at 25 degrees with 50 percent humidity in the air.”

And since the arrival of Winter X Games in Aspen years ago, Paullin’s snowmaking duties have become much more crucial.

Working with a crew of 20, Paullin uses water from the Roaring Fork River to pump thousands of gallons of snow into large piles on the pipe. From there, the snowcats mix the manmade snow with the natural snow, which Paullin says ensures uniformity and eliminates soft spots and air pockets.

“We pump 10 to 12 million gallons of snow just for the pipe alone,” he said of the operation. “We have to especially pay attention to the left wall of the pipe, which faces the sun and demands about five feet more of snow than the shaded right side.”

Despite this year’s less than generous snowfall, Paullin says his snowmaking totals average about the same each season.

“We have a good system in place,” he said. “I get excited knowing that I can have the mountain ready to go regardless of whether it snows; for this year’s Games, I can tell you we are more than ready.”

An operation of 355 light fixtures running at 880,000 watts; a staff of 1,500 including ESPN, vendors, locals, volunteers and on-mountain crews; 215 pro athletes; an entire fleet of buses transporting crowds of more than 114,000 to and from every 15 minutes and four days of nonstop partying. Something has to give, right?

Aspen Ski Co. events manager Justin “Buck” Erickson explained how it all comes together, crediting “a significant investment from ESPN, Aspen Skiing Company and our partners in the Aspen/Snowmass community.

“Clear and timely communication between ESPN and SkiCo has been key to our partnership and the event for the past 10 years,” Erickson explained.

For him, the biggest challenges include weather, event timing, the possibility of reaching capacity and harmonizing the efforts of several transportation entities at once. Buses come from as far away as Utah to support the efforts.

“It’s about being safe and efficient,” Erickson said. “With tens of thousands of people coming and going throughout the day and no on site parking, RFTA plays a huge role.

On the other side of the coin, ESPN constructed the X Games venue on Buttermilk in late December and have since been working closely with selection committees to determine who should be invited. With 12 events on the lineup this year, ESPN’s associate director of communications Danny Chi described two changes taking place: the big air jump location has moved to the base area below slopestyle, and for the first time ever, all slopestyle events will take place at night under the lights. (In 2014, slopestyle will be a Winter Olympic event for the first time.)

When the familiar sound of Sal Maskela’s voice rings through the speakers on Jan. 26, thousands of people will have already gathered at the base of Buttermilk, their cheers spilling out clouds of heat into the freezing night air. For the eleventh year in a row, the guys behind the scene will stop to throw high-fives, congratulating one another on a job well done and acknowledging that for the next four days, their months of planning and building will now be handed off to the merciless ways of the sport itself.

And when it’s all over, and the trucks with the machines and the lights pack up and roll out of our precious carnival grounds, leaving only the remnants of the superpipe lingering in the shadows, make sure to bid them a farewell.

After all, it will take a year for them to return. But what they built will stay with us all winter.

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