Buttermilk slopestyle course gets fresh makeover ahead of world championships

Austrian snowboarder Anna Gasser slides down a rail feature on the slopestyle course during a practice session at the 2021 X Games Aspen on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The slopestyle course for January’s X Games Aspen at Buttermilk Ski Area received plenty of rave reviews from athletes, but it also had a few flaws.

So, with the same venue set to host the world championships beginning Wednesday, the course workers wanted to rebuild parts of it to make sure it was “bulletproof” come competition day.

“Given how complex and challenging this entire year has been — not just in the events world, but there are a lot of travel and logistical hiccups that could happen on the way in — we and FIS both felt the most important thing is we be able to successfully pull off a great event and crown a world champion,” said Aspen Skiing Co.’s Tyler Lindsay, who will serve as the chief of competition for the world championships. “We wanted to have a venue we felt was really weatherproof and had a surplus of speed and that we were really confident we could pull off no matter what gets thrown at us.”

The 2021 FIS Snowboard & Freeski World Championships had been scheduled to take place in Zhangjiakuo, China, in February, but were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic and moved to Aspen, which will also host a World Cup event at Buttermilk immediately following worlds.

By the time Aspen officially became the host, there were only a matter of weeks to get everything in order before most of the skiing and snowboarding world turned its gaze back to Buttermilk.

“We just made sure it was going to be bulletproof for weather,” said Yannick Rioux, Skico’s terrain park director. “We didn’t have much time. X Games took three to four weeks to get built. We only had one week to put it together, with two weeks notice, too.”

Jamie Anderson hits the final feature on the slopestyle course during her last run of the women’s snowboard slopestyle finals at the 2021 X Games Aspen at Buttermilk on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. Anderson won her seventh gold medal in slopestyle. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

As for the flaws with the X Games course, most of it was related to how close some of the features were together, which made it challenging in spots to get enough speed, especially after a little bit of snowfall. Along with completely rebuilding the rails section up top, Rioux’s crew gave the runways on the jumps some added length to maintain speed and straightened up the course. Gone are the transition and quarterpipe hits from X Games, with a more straightforward three-rail and three-jump course left for worlds.

“We have a tremendous inventory of rails from all these years of hosting X Games, so we dug into our pile of metal and we pulled out a really cool rebuild,” Lindsay said. “With the jumps, we made a couple of very, very minor changes to the first two jumps. We pushed the second jump downhill, gosh, I don’t know, maybe 25 or 30 feet or so, to open things up between the first and second jump.”

The extra space, both in the jumps and rails sections, will make course maintenance easier as well. The rail section was tight in spots during X Games, and if it snowed a lot of it had to be removed by hand. Rioux designed the new course with that in mind, so if it does snow they can get a snowcat in there to save time.

“When we get 4 or 5 inches, it’s a lot of snow to remove,” Rioux said. “So we try to make the rails a little bit wider at the top so the cat can fit in between the rails. But it’s still a pretty complicated design.”

What about big air and halfpipe?

Like with X Games, the big air jump at worlds will remain the final jump of the slopestyle course, instead of its more traditional spot on the other side of the halfpipe. The jump also scored rave reviews at X Games and led to some of the best big air contests in recent memory. A similar show could be in store for worlds.

Many of the sports’ best athletes have been in Aspen for some time and have been able to test parts of the courses and provide feedback to the builders.

“As you saw at X Games, this is a jump that can carry a lot of progression,” Lindsay said. “We’ve had a lot of athlete feedback over the last several weeks and that was really a universal consensus, that that was one of the best jumps anyone has ever hit, speaking for the athletes. We definitely have a sense of don’t mess too much with a good thing.”

X Games rookie Eileen Gu airs out of the superpipe during women’s finals at the 2021 X Games Aspen on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. Gu took home the gold in her first superpipe final. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The halfpipe will more or less remain as it’s been, although it will be cleaned up and parts of the deck will be re-graded.

The world championships will go from Wednesday through Tuesday, March 16 — sans spectators — with the first qualifiers for the World Cup starting Thursday, March 18.

More than any other reason, this short window is why the courses essentially will be identical for both worlds and the World Cup/Grand Prix, which is the first Olympic qualifier for U.S. athletes ahead of the 2022 Winter Games in China.

As for who has final say over the course designs, Lindsay said it’s a collaboration between Skico, FIS and U.S. Ski & Snowboard.

“My initial considerations are always around what is going to be the most interesting athletically and what is going to be driving the culture and the direction of these sports forward,” Lindsay said. “It’s not really a situation where there is someone with a last word. It’s much more of everyone putting their heads together in a collaborative process that arrives at the best outcome for all the different parties involved.”

World Championships Schedule

Wednesday, March 10: SB slopestyle/ski halfpipe qualifying

Thursday, March 11: SB halfpipe/ski slopestyle qualifying

Friday, March 12: SB slopestyle/ski halfpipe finals

Saturday, March 13: SB halfpipe/ski slopestyle finals

Sunday, March 14: SB big air qualifying

Monday, March 15: Ski big air qualifying

Tuesday, March 16: SB/ski big air finals

Grand Prix runs from March 18-21