Bumps, bruises common at terrain parks, riders say
Aspen Times Staff Writer
On Friday, Dec. 27, a 16-year-old boy went too fast and too far off a jump in the expert section of the terrain park at Buttermilk Mountain. He ended up in critical condition with a head injury at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction.
“He came in with excessive speed and he landed down on the flat,” said John Melville, a 26-year old terrain park coach with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club who saw the accident.
By Monday, the young man had been released from the hospital, according to officials with the Aspen Skiing Co., and was thought to be doing better.
On any given day, a young skier or snowboarder can get hurt in the terrain park at Buttermilk, which features a number of expert rail slides and big jumps, as well as a huge halfpipe.
Kids flock to the parks at both Buttermilk and the Snowmass Ski Area to jump and slide over rails, boxes, picnic tables and jumps that would make most parents blanch should they be on hand to witness the daring feats.
And some parents might question why any ski area would build terrain features that practically beg their kids to risk getting hurt.
But pick up any copy of a snowboarding magazine or a “new school” skiing magazine and most of the ads feature a young guy sliding down a staircase handrail, getting huge air in the backcountry, or flipping and turning in a halfpipe.
“There is so much demand for it,” said Greg Boyd, the manager and designer of the Skico’s terrain parks. “If we didn’t provide a safe and controlled area where we can monitor what is going on, they would be doing it somewhere else on the mountain where there would be greater risk. What we do is provide the safest possible area.”
Boyd and his crew check out each terrain feature and jump every day to make sure all seems well, and then riders have to go through narrow gates marked with warning signs to get to the features.
Buttermilk now has a few beginner park features on Panda Peak, its easiest terrain, several intermediate level “hits” on its upper mountain, and a range of expert features on the lower mountain that will be used for the upcoming ESPN Winter X Games slopestyle competition.
At Snowmass, there are features running from near the top of the Coney Glade lift down to the halfpipe. On Aspen Mountain, several rail slides and other features have recently been installed at the top of One and Two Leaf.
It’s all part of a terrain park boom in the ski industry, and for many skiers and riders, it is the cool thing to do.
And a casual observer on any given day at Buttermilk’s “Crazy T’rain Park” can watch less-than-expert skiers and riders take some nasty falls in the park.
On Tuesday in the park, one relatively shaky snowboarder approached an intermediate feature that has a small ramp leading to three picnic tables lined up end-to-end.
The rider came in too low and too slow and took the leading edge of the first table right in the shin of his front leg. He was thrown down hard and face-planted on the blue, metal table.
“That was the most random thing I’ve done in my life,” he told his friend after he collected his wits about him and was sliding away.
Jake Kaup, a young snowboarder from Glenwood Springs, saw the guy take it on the chin.
“I have seen a lot of inexperienced people trying stuff now, more than ever,” Kaup said. “They have a baby park at the bottom for beginners. And when you see beginners coming up and trying the harder stuff, and they hurt themselves, you wonder why they aren’t down there.”
Hans Hohl, the Buttermilk Mountain ski area manager, said it is important that park users take the time to start out on easier features and to always “pre-ride, re-ride and then free-ride” the terrain park.
“You want to scope out the terrain before you actually jump,” Hohl said. “You pre-ride the whole park or the features you are going to hit and look at them. Then you re-ride it again to check for the right speeds, and then you proceed on the hit.”
Hohl said that despite Friday’s injury to the 16-year-old jumper, there have been no more accidents this year in the terrain park than other years. He said the park is essentially the same as it was last year.
“The number of features, the size of the features, and the way the hill is used are all about the same,” Hohl said.
Ski area officials and terrain park users say the park rules are the same as any other terrain on the mountain ? its up to the skier or rider to know their limits and to stay in control.
“In riding the park, there is a certain amount of trust that needs to be on the person to do their own investigation into how the park is going to suit their ability,” said Melville, the AVSC coach. “I felt that that accident wouldn’t have happened if this person had appropriately studied the features before going through and hitting them.”
Another young rider, Jake Schuss, 11, of Basalt, said he has taken some lumps in the park.
“I’ve had like a concussion, and I’ve really hurt my ankles jumping,” he said. “But I know my limits. I’ve never tried the last big jump cause I know if I did I would just pack it. And just a couple of runs ago, I caught my edge on the picnic table and just slammed down my stomach, but it didn’t really hurt that bad. But sometimes, you can get really messed up.”
Schuss, who is a very capable rider and looks totally comfortable sliding over the features, said he too has noticed people in over their head in the expert section of the park.
“I notice a lot of people, even the beginners, are coming up here and getting really cocky and not even trying to work their way up,” Schuss said. “They just go right at it. I mean, I worked my way up for like four years before I started the hard stuff.”
Some terrain parks at ski areas, including Whistler/Blackcomb, Canada, and Snow Summit in California, now require helmets, signed waivers and a park pass that must be shown at the entrance to the black-diamond section of the park.
Mike Kaplan, the Skico’s vice president of mountain operations, said he and Skico in-house counsel David Bellack visited Snow Summit last year to determine if that was a necessary step to take here.
“We came away feeling that it is something that didn’t apply to us, at least not yet,” Kaplan said. “One, our park is not so easily isolated. Two, I wasn’t impressed by the effectiveness. You pay $5 and get the pass and the screening isn’t that effective. And you also force everybody else onto the blue-square features and you have the same issues there.”
Kaplan said the Skico, for now, is focusing on signage, warnings and education about the best way to work up to the more difficult features in the park.
“We are continuing to push on the education,” Kaplan said.
And Hohl recommended that kids take lessons to learn how to have a safe time in the terrain park.
But that raises another issue. Are instructors leading kids in over their heads in the parks?
“I see it all too often ? an ignorant ski or snowboard pro taking a large group of lower level students into an expert park with blue and black diamond features, paying no attention to etiquette or the fact that these features are designed for level 8-10 skiers and riders,” wrote Mike Edwards of Aspen in a recent letter to the editor.
“It has happened,” conceded Hohl. “And it is being addressed in a very serious fashion. We have a protocol that outlines what level of class you can take where.”
And Edwards raised the issue of whether the terrain park at Buttermilk is being built and managed more for the coming X Games than for recreational skiers and riders.
But Boyd said that’s not the case.
“It is the exact same features and size and layout that would be used for an expert terrain park,” he said. “So regardless if the X Games were going to be here or not, to provide an expert line, it would be the same.”
[Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is email@example.com]
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