Remaking a mountain
By Steve BensonAspen Times Staff Writerts safe to say new-school jibbing is no longer a trend, craze or fad. After all, two of traditional skiings grandest strongholds Alta and Aspen Mountain have added terrain parks to their offerings. Snowboarding may still be outlawed in Alta, but as of this year the area boasts a plethora of rails and hits to entertain jibbers on skis, who have grown tired of 500 annual inches of light and dry.And while Aspen Mountains terrain park looks like a miniature race course for remote-control cars, its mere existence indicates that the new-school movement is here to stay. These days its hard to imagine the new school ever growing old, like say, hotdogging or 220-cm skis.Think about it: Has a mountain ever completely revamped its physical layout to accommodate a new style of skiing?All over the world, ski resorts are constructing terrain parks and superpipes, hiring special personnel and devoting weeklong festivals to the new-school movement. To say theyve opened their arms to the style would be an understatement. Instead, resorts are fighting and clawing like desperate women over a bridal bouquet, for they know this could be the beginning of a beautiful thing.The MilkNowhere in the country is the new-school vibe more evident than at Buttermilk Mountain. Long known as Aspens great learners mountain, Buttermilk is now also the unofficial headquarters of the jibbing universe maybe not in numbers or size, but in philosophy.All over the world, from California to Wisconsin to Sweden to Japan, young jibbers dream of Buttermilk, and of one day making it to the X Games.Three years ago, Buttermilk and the Aspen Skiing Co. caught the gigantic wave of new-school jibbing when they landed the ESPN X Games. Three years later, theyre still holding on to the ride. After another successful run in 2004, ESPN extended its contract to hold the games at Buttermilk for another three years, through 2007.Are you kidding me? Thats huge, thats phenomenal, crowed Hans Hohl, Buttermilks mountain manager.Every other place has only [hosted the X Games] for two years it really makes a huge statement for what we do here.What Buttermilk has done is construct a world-class facility at the base of the mountain, including an earth-carved superpipe, a terrain park and courses that can accommodate any X Games event from skiercross to snocross (snowmobile racing).During X Games week, Buttermilk was lit up like a giant spaceport along Highway 82. The venue resembled an amphitheater on the lower flanks of the mountain, with basically every event visible from the base.In the middle, slicing through the venue like a galactic landing strip, is the Superpipe, peppered with acrobatic skiers and riders throwing flips and spinning 900s.The venue at Buttermilk is perfect, Hohl said. You can see everything from one spot.And on any given day during the season, local professional skiers and riders like Steele Spence, Peter Olenick and Gretchen Bleiler can be seen matching wits with amateurs from all over the valley and beyond.In short, Buttermilk is a fantasy land for professional and aspiring new-school jibbers.As big as X Games is, Hohl said a large part of the motivation to construct the facilities at Buttermilk came from the local pool of new-schoolers, which is growing annually.You spend a couple hours in the terrain park watching, and you can pick the local kids out, Hohl said. We want to keep these kids happy as well theyre living here, theyre going to be raising families here.Hohl, who has been involved with the Skico for 13 years three as the mountain manager and several before that as an instructor knows from experience the impact of the new Buttermilk.Steele Spence was one of my students when he was 12, Hohl said. Even then, this kid could huck like you wouldnt believe, and now [hes] a pro. So we want to provide the potential for these kids.The Other ThreeProgressing alongside Buttermilk is Snowmass, which also has a world-class terrain park and superpipe and holds freeskiing events throughout the season. Aspen Mountains park, near the top of the gondola, has grown over the years but is still small and is mainly used as a learning facility.Aspen Highlands has taken more of an Old World approach, with two or three natural log rails.Of course, Highlands is pushing the boundaries, too, just in a different way. Highland Bowl, with its vast, steep pitches and mandatory hike to the summit, offers an extreme experience that most ski resorts can only dream of.After the bowl fully opened in the winter of 2002-03, skier visits nearly doubled, going from 23,000 to 43,000, according to mountain manager Ron Chauner.We started getting more local people coming out and discovering what Highlands has to offer, he said.What the Bowl offers is hard to put into words.Maybe its a symbol, maybe its a metaphor to skiing and earning your turns and the athleticism and fitness it takes to get up into that area and ski down people get a lot of enjoyment and self-satisfaction when they make the hike and ski down, he proposed.The Beginning and EvolutionHohl said the image of Buttermilk as a new-school haven sprang to life years ago, before the X Games was even a blip on the radar.The first terrain parks and halfpipes, which were built in the 1994-95 season on Eagle Hill, started to bring in the younger influence more kids and n continued on page A12n continued from page A11that was basically the start, he said. Then X Games came in and gave us a big push, gave us some momentum.But instead of sitting back and enjoying the ride, Buttermilk and the Skico got aggressive.They began hiring specific personnel, such as acclaimed terrain park designer Greg Boyd, of Whistler/Blackcomb, B.C. Yannick Rioux, also of Whistler, was added this season.Hes an exceptional cat operator and pipe-cutter, Hohl said.Both are on the hill daily, constantly tweaking and maintaining the facilities.Theres a dedicated cat and pipe-cutter in the park every single night, and sometimes two, especially if were moving features around, Hohl said.Perhaps the greatest move in the past year was moving the halfpipe to its current location, digging it into the ground, and turning it into a superpipe with 20-foot-plus walls.Moving the superpipe made the layout of the venue much more spectator-friendly, and filled what was once a dead zone between different courses in the center of the hill. Furthermore, holding events at night in front of a live television audience, propelled the X Games into an even bigger international spotlight. And the Skicos investment prompted ESPN to extend its contract with Buttermilk.Now, Hohl said, the mountain can devote more attention to the everyday skier and rider.That was kind of the drive, to get the young aggressive athlete, Hohl said. At first, a lot of the rails and features were built too big. Where we missed, and where were making adjustments now, is in the intermediate terrain park.The intermediates are a big group.Smaller features and wider rails will become more available for the inexperienced or beginning jibber, Hohl said. And a beginner-friendly halfpipe is in the works.Were figuring out how to build a smaller halfpipe with 8-foot walls, he said. It will cater to that new halfpipe user.The balance between advanced and intermediate jibbers mirrors a larger balance that Buttermilk must strike between new-school features and the mountains long-standing orientation toward families and beginners. That, too, is important to the future of Buttermilk, he said.It may seem difficult to manage a mountain divided between baggy-clothed, orange-haired jibbers and families on vacation, but Hohl said theyre actually one and the same.Its still family, he said. Now you just see moms and dads with their kids in the terrain park.Now youve got something a little more, its really cool. At the X Games, we had a lot of families show up it just takes on an additional energy.Keeping it All TogetherBuilding and maintaining a new superpipe and terrain park is not cheap (just how un-cheap Hohl wouldnt say). Crews excavated the superpipe last summer, making it both permanent and more efficient. By carving the pipe out of the earth, mountain managers can create a pipe with less man-made snow and avoid a fair amount of sculpting work as well.Hohl says the Skico continues to look at other labor-saving and money-saving ways to keep pace with the new-school vibe.Were continually evolving and looking at it, he said. We visit other ski areas to look at what theyre doing we always imitate the best.But while the new-school movement changes quickly, both in terms of physical tricks and overall trends, Hohl and Buttermilk cant act as impulsively.You cant make rash and quick decisions, he said. You want to make sure youre going in the right direction.Steve Bensons e-mail address is email@example.com
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