By GABBY DODD | Special to Moonshine Ink
If you’re a freestyle skier or rider who craves those slushy spring park laps sliding rails at Boreal, jumps at Squaw, or the pipe at Northstar, you might want to tip your hat to John Rice.
In 1985, Rice, then-operations manager for Snow Summit in Southern California and current general manager of Sierra-at-Tahoe, reluctantly let Tom Sims (of Sims Snowboards fame) and professional skater Bert LaMar demo snowboarding for him — even though boarding wasn’t allowed there or at most other resorts at the time. He had been approached about permitting snowboarding many times before but didn’t think the technology was there yet — until he saw the skills of Sims and LaMar. Rice would soon not only become a force in the efforts to allow the sport at resorts, but also a pioneer of creating one of the first terrain parks in the United States.
“Tom drew for me with a pencil on a piece of butcher paper what a halfpipe should look like,” Rice recalled in a recent interview for Moonshine Ink, adding, “ … apparently, there was a halfpipe at the Tahoe City Dump that was essentially a big concrete pipe that was up there and these guys had shoveled snow around it, and he said ‘What if you built one at the ski area?’ I was really excited about what this could be.”
Rice suggested to Snow Summit that it consider introducing snowboarding, but he was denied. Resorts at the time were worried about the culture of snowboarding, what it would do to their business, and how it would impact the snow. Despite the risk, Rice began allowing the skilled boarders to come secretly at night and build features that would be torn down before morning.
In 1986, Snow Summit officially opened the mountain to snowboarding and Rice left the resort for the nearby Big Bear Mountain Resort. By 1991, in a bid to convince the owners to open up to snowboarding there too, he drew up an idea for a “snowboard park” off a chair called Outlaw. His persistence paid off.
“We went and started building some crazy stuff, just using our imagination, and we were kind of stealing from BMX parks like how they do little tabletop jumps, and we were stealing ideas from skateboard parks,” Rice said. “That really became the first full-time terrain park in the United States.”
Within a few years, the park opened to skiers. Today there are terrain parks at nearly 90 percent of resorts across the world, according to Rice. “It would’ve happened anyway,” he said. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and was willing to take the risk and really push it hard.”
The progressive nature of freestyle pushed terrain parks bigger, but bigger was not necessarily better for the resort business. Lawsuits began picking up speed as people blamed injury on terrain parks, their size, and how they were being maintained.
Tim Cohee, owner of China Peak Mountain Resort near Fresno who is also former CEO of Kirkwood and chair of Sierra Nevada University’s Ski Business and Resort Marketing program, said insurance has become much less of a problem since the days when the lawsuits first started hitting. He believes the number of lawsuits and injuries has gone way down, but so have the size of parks as well as shifts in resorts’ target markets.
Brandon Dodds, head terrain park builder at Squaw Valley, followed his snowboarding passion to Tahoe from Minnesota in 1997.
“When we first got into [terrain parks], it was pretty new, so it was evolving very fast and I saw it evolve to where it was at its peak in probably 2004 to 2005,” Dodds said. But now parks are getting smaller. “It’s kind of just slowly gone backward since then. Everyone started scaling back and diminishing programs.”
Not everyone is completely on board with this downsizing. Olympic gold medalist and two-time X-Games gold medalist Maddie Bowman told Moonshine in an email that she has not seen parks “progress in the best direction.”
“When I was a kid, terrain parks allowed for more risk, but now with the possibility of lawsuits, ski resorts are stepping back from building more challenging parks,” said Bowman, who announced her retirement from competitive skiing in January.
Snowboarder Nick Geisen came to Tahoe when he began to pick up sponsors and remembers when 80-foot jumps were open to the public at Alpine Meadows. Those parks no longer exist. And neither do many other large jumps throughout the Basin. While Geisen considers himself a diverse rider who enjoys many different disciplines of snowboarding, large jumps are what he really cares about.
“They had really big jumps at Northstar and then I think for whatever reason, Vail buying out a lot of companies and going along the whole family-oriented style of resort management, there started to become lots of rules and regulations,” Geisen said.
Mike Schipani, terrain park manager at Northstar California Resort, explained that Northstar wants to offer family-friendly parks because it grows the future market of park riders.
“We do not want to shrink large terrain, but sometimes the natural resources of snow can impact a resort’s ability to offer a product that can take massive numbers of cubic-yardage to construct,” Schipani said in an email.
Cohee said that when parks get bigger and more expensive to maintain, they actually appeal to a smaller subset of expert riders. It doesn’t make economic sense.
“You have to have a lot of people that really want to ride the park in order to make it cost effective, and so I don’t think it’s a big surprise that the biggest parks are at the biggest resorts that do the most business,” he said.
This means that these types of parks are often limited to only about 12 resorts around the country, according to Cohee.
Many resorts simply do not have the resources for big features, while big resorts like Mammoth Mountain mostly build their features out of machine-made snow since natural snowfall can be unreliable, according to Brad Wilson, former manager of Diamond Peak in Incline Village who now manages Bogus Basin in Idaho.
Snowmaking can be water-and energy-intensive, which can eat up large portions of a resort’s budget.
“If you have a superpipe, you probably have $150,000 in snowmaking to get the pipe up,” Wilson said.
Geisen believes that many resorts don’t want to build big jumps — or sometimes even medium-sized jumps — because they may only cater for some 200 or fewer people compared to the thousands of other customers visiting the resort each day who will never hit a medium or large jump.
Usage issues have always been a battle for terrain parks because there is no way to prove a return on investment, Dodds believes. He has helped build parks at resorts around the world and says that while the United States continues to scale back, Europe is pushing terrain parks hard. He thinks that many European countries understand the marketing value better than resorts in this country.
“Where in the states, they see it more as just an expense,” Dodds said. “They think the kids in the park buy their passes and then there is no more money being spent.”
Rice believes resorts that still have parks and invest in them are “absolutely” seeing the return.
Many see that freestyle terrain has opened up to a new way of thinking about the mountain experience, which in turn invites more people to give parks a try.
“A decade ago, there wasn’t a lot of creativity in the parks, so while features have scaled down in size, creativity has definitely ramped up,” former professional snowboarder and Truckee local Nick Visconti said.
Parks have become more free-flowing, often with additional natural features or snow volcanoes and small quarter-pipes. Geisen thinks this inspires first-timers to look at parks and see them as inviting, reminding them of waves and surfing.
Chris Gunnarson, senior vice president of youth development for POWDR, which owns Woodward Tahoe, was inspired to develop better terrain parks at resorts for fear they would disappear after he saw what was happening to California skateparks in the late ’80s. At the time, lawsuits and liabilities made them uninsurable and they almost became nonexistent.
Gunnarson believes that putting the same attention into lower-level parks that was formerly put into advanced parks and adding more steps of progression appeals to a larger customer base.
“It’s really leaning harder into not confining terrain parks into being what they’ve always been and just doing more of them, but really reinventing what a park means,” Gunnarson said.
This makes way for more terrain-based learning which can teach people faster and better through shaped snow and small boxes rather than just mostly flat areas. “As soon as they learn how to ski, they want to go to the park,” Rice said.
Accessibility and affordability
The monetary costs for those who want to ride can also be an issue. Between passes/day tickets, gear, and a person’s geographical location, it can be hard for families with lower incomes to get their children involved.
“There is wealth inequality, and there is a disparity between where people grow up. With skateboarding, you can skateboard anywhere in the world, four seasons,” Visconti said. “Snowboarding is less accessible, and it typically takes people that are a bit more affluent to provide that privilege.”
At Woodward, in order to get more people involved, there are often discount days or scholarships available for summer camps across many locations. Boreal Mountain offers $15 Fridays several times throughout the season. At Woodward Park City, memberships and day tickets are priced much lower than anywhere else in the region, according to Gunnarson.
Gold-medalist Bowman noted that wealth inequality directly affects people’s ability to get into snowsports and that there are many mountains that do and don’t adequately address this issue. The Sierra-at-Tahoe Education Foundation gives scholarships to kids and helps pay for gear and team fees, and Bowman says that there are many other programs like this across the country.
Free hike parks like Red’s Backyard in Killington, Vermont and Copper Mountain, Colorado were inspired by pro snowboarder and Olympic gold-medalist Red Gerard. Based on Gerard’s own backyard, Woodward aims to use these free parks to make it easier and more affordable for people to get into the sport.
But there are currently very few parks like this. Denver, Colorado is home to the nation’s only free urban terrain park, Ruby Hill, which was created by Denver Parks and Recreation and Winter Park Resort.
Squaw Valley’s Dodds noted that the county park systems in Minnesota are leading the terrain park scene there. While it is not free, tickets are in the $20 range, much more affordable than going to a resort.
“It’s super cool because it’s giving kids more access,” Dodds said. “Even in Reno, if someone had the money, you could put some snowmaking in with little fan guns and just have a hike park.”
Visconti has ridden at the Ruby Hill park and would love to see something similar in Truckee that would be city ordained and operated, but questions this type of program’s sustainability because of the number of people that it would actually serve. People who live in the Bay Area and Sacramento would still have to get to Truckee to use it.
A changing climate
Visconti also notes that with climate change making winters much more variable, it further complicates this type of concept.
“Even in places in the Midwest or Colorado where you typically experience more snow, but then moving into destination mountain towns, that’s a lot of investment for the community to make based on if they do or do not receive enough snowfall to manage it,” Visconti said.
Climate change is already leaving its mark on freestyle programs across the world.
In 2017, Camp of Champions, a former freestyle summer camp in Whistler, British Columbia founded in 1989, filed for bankruptcy. Owner and founder Ken Achenbach addressed visitors to the camp in a Facebook post, explaining that years of glacial retreat made it far too difficult to build a terrain park to an acceptable standard.
“The giant pile of snow connecting the glacier to the top of the lift and the glacier itself is melting. This has accelerated over the last four summers,” Achenbach said in the post. “To give you an idea of how much melting has happened the last few years, in 2015 alone, the glacier lost 35 vertical feet of ice.”
Just weeks after Camp of Champions closed, Austria’s Superpark Dachstein also saw its demise because of warming.
Dodds has seen the same sort of glacial retreat at Saas-Fee in Switzerland over the last four years. Building parks has become harder because crews are having to dig into the ice now. He worries that park programs could see further cuts as part of a warming trend.
However, Diamond Peak’s Wilson believes that even with more condensed winters, smaller features will slowly grow throughout the season as natural snow accumulates, and he does not think parks are going to go away.
Visconti agrees, explaining that parks will stay a priority because the riding is youth-driven and will be important for the future of resorts. Despite the lack of recent snowfall in Tahoe, he noted many resorts were still blowing snow for the terrain parks at the time of this writing.
“That being said, I think resorts are just going to have a more difficult time meeting the demands of the growing public that’s interested in skiing and snowboarding, particularly with climate change because of the astronomical costs associated with blowing snow,” Visconti said.
While the future of parks and skiing in general may look grim, there are also resorts making a commitment to their parks.
After going through five droughts, China Peak has upgraded its snowmaking system and is putting more of an emphasis on its terrain parks.
“We just did not have a good focus on it and we think it is a very important part of the business of attracting more of the youth market,” Cohee said. “The cornerstone of marketing to the youth is having a good park.”
Sierra-at-Tahoe also sees the same value in committing to the endurance of their terrain park. The resort’s park started the careers of a generation of famous snowsport athletes, including Bowman, Jamie Anderson, Kyle Smaine, and Hannah Teter.
“I used to — and still do — feel so much risk and endorphins when I hit jumps,” Bowman said, pointing out also that the “natural high” she got from park snowsports was a positive outlet. “As a kid, I never felt the need to seek those feelings out with drugs or alcohol.”
Sierra’s communications and public relations manager, Sarah Sherman, believes that as long as there’s a demand for parks, the resort will continue to offer them.
“I just think that it’s important for the kids that ride it to support it, that’s how management is going to hear it,” Dodds echoed. “It’s important for everyone to positively support the terrain parks and show the mountains that there is a need for it.”
Main Image Caption: Former pro boarder Nick Visconti gets some air. Photo courtesy Nick Visconti