Master builders push pipes to the limit
December 16, 2005
The guys who build the legendary superpipe used for the X Games at Buttermilk are such pros they really don’t need additional motivation to do the job right.But they received some extra motivation this year that they wish didn’t exist.Master halfpipe builders Frank Wells and Mike Binnell said they dedicated their effort on the halfpipe to their mentor, Jeff “Floodo” Flood, who died in a car crash last summer at the Mount Hood, Ore., ski area, where he worked for at least 21 years.Binnell is a key part of the crew that has built the halfpipes and other snow courses and features used in the X Games for all nine years of its history. He’s heading an eight-person crew again this year. They use Snowcats to build the monster halfpipe at Buttermilk as well as the moto X course – used by motocross bikes – and various courses used for snowboard and skiing competitions.Their work is often forgotten in all the hype that surrounds the event, but their professional effort through a company called Snow Park Technologies helped the X Games grow from an obscure event to a wildly popular showcase.
As the X Games’ popularity started to soar, it demanded more professional attention in areas like infrastructure construction. That professional attention wouldn’t have developed if Snow Park Technologies wouldn’t have brought in experts like Floodo, Binnell said.”I couldn’t believe how good he was. He was a mentor to all of us,” Binnell said. “It’s a tragic loss.”Binnell and Wells have worked on the Buttermilk halfpipe since Dec. 9, first moving in snow and packing it in to precise depths with their cats, then using a specialized machine called a Zaugg to carve out the smooth, bowl-like surface of the halfpipe. Wells describes the Zaugg as a Zamboni for the halfpipe, referring to the machine that maintains a perfect sheet of ice for hockey and skating.After more than 120 hours of coddling and creating by Binnell and Wells combined, the halfpipe is ready for action at Buttermilk. The same structure that will be used by X Games stars is also accessible to the public, starting this weekend.The dimensions of this “superpipe” are impressive: It’s 500 feet long, 18 feet deep and features a span from lip to lip of 54 feet.
That’s a far cry from what was used in the first X Games, said Wells, a snowboarder who competed in the first four years of games. He was the American halfpipe champion in 1995-96.Even as a competitor, he was interested in the creation of pipes. Binnell recalls Wells approaching him during the first X Games and suggesting some features during construction of the halfpipe. Instead of feeling threatened, Binnell welcomed the advice and began enlisting Wells’ input. Wells went to work for Snow Park Technologies six years ago as a pipe expert and regularly teams with Binnell to build pipes. Both men are independent contractors who are slowly but steadily decreasing the amount of time they spend each winter building halfpipes. Both rely more on other business interests.Nevertheless, they are still regarded as the top halfpipe builders, according to Aspen Skiing Co. officials. The Skico has liked their work so much on the X Games halfpipe in the last five years that it has also hired them to build their pipe at Snowmass Ski Area.Wells said they have earned their reputation by trial and error rather than instant mastery. “It’s more that I’ve learned from mistakes than we’re experts,” he said.
Nevertheless, the pipe they built for the 10th X Games is out of the league of the halfpipes used in the first games.”There weren’t pipes of this quality. There weren’t the resources committed,” Wells said. Now, a halfpipe of Buttermilk’s quality is demanded for the X Games and several ski areas are building them to scratch an itch of their core customers.Binnell and Wells will return to Aspen to work from Jan. 9 to Feb. 1 on the other X Games features, then will maintain the halfpipe and most of the courses through the games.Binnell said he still remains awed when he sees competitors using some of his crews’ creations, then sees them on ESPN’s broadcasts of the X Games. Even if most people don’t know or care about their work, they get the satisfaction of a job well done.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com