Snow park experts provide brains, brawn for X Games
January 20, 2015
Television sports network ESPN is widely recognized as the mastermind and organizer of the Winter X Games. Behind the scenes, a much lower profile company provides the bulk of the brains and brawn to pull off the mammoth undertaking.
Snow Park Technologies toils for thousands of hours before and during the event to make sure world-class athletes such as Shaun White and Hannah Teter get their chances to shine on world-class courses.
The Winter X Games will be held Thursday through Sunday at Buttermilk Ski Area.
Snow Park Technologies, known as SPT, uses a fleet of 13 snowcats as well as scores of workers from its own ranks and the Aspen Skiing Co. to design, build and maintain the eight courses used for competitions, including the gargantuan superpipe that commands so much attention looming just above the Buttermilk Ski Area base.
SPT has created the courses all 13 years that the Winter X Games have been in Aspen. Some key staff members have been here every year.
"It gets harder every year," said Chris "Gunny" Gunnarson, president of the Reno, Nevada, firm and one of its founders.
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Every course needs annual refinements because the athletes keep getting better, bolder and capable of more jaw-dropping feats, Gunnarson said. The SPT crew — made up entirely of snowboarders, many who competed professionally — can't bear the thought of having the athletes consider their courses boring or flawed. It's a prime motivator, and it's magnified at the X Games.
"It's obviously the biggest annual show on snow," Gunnarson said.
The SPT staff constantly watches competitions and builds courses throughout the United States and other parts of the world, so it stays up with the innovations in slopestyle, big-air and halfpipe events. The company also builds courses for the Winter X Games Europe, the Winter Dew Tour and the Burton U.S. Open, among others. Gunnarson acknowledged his firm is the "big dog" of its industry.
"We're global, and we travel so much," said Frank Wells, SPT's director of business development and an expert at building halfpipes. "We've got contractors working for us from Northstar, from Vail, from Mount Hood. Each of these guys is their own park manager. They come and collaborate on the X Games, so you're kind of bringing the best of the best together."
Outside competition, the company works with 14 major ski resorts, including Skico, to build halfpipes and terrain parks. Skico uses SPT to assist its crew construct facilities at Snowmass.
Gunnarson views his company's work as key to attracting and retaining future generations of skiers and snowboarders. Baby boomers — the bread-and-butter customers of the ski industry since the 1960s — are "aging out" of the sport, he noted. Younger customers grew up watching the X Games and messing around in terrain parks. Now they are introducing their own children to those parts of the experience.
Gunnarson said he regularly takes his two young daughters to the slopes to check out terrain parks.
"They get bored pretty quickly with the normal alpine experience. So do I," he said.
SPT's "whole mantra is elevating the experience" on the snow, Gunnarson said. It's a lofty assignment.
Courses constantly being improved
"We have to stay relevant," said Mike Binnell, officially SPT's director of logistics but a jack of all trades. He helped Gunnarson found the company in the late 1990s. "Our super weapon in this is our relationship with the athletes."
SPT is proud of keeping up with the progression of the sports.
"Two years ago, we went to a 22-foot pipe from the 18. That was definitely a big deal," Wells said. "The slopestyle course (at Buttermilk) has gotten to be known as the best course in the world, according to the feedback we get from the athletes."
Gunnarson said planning for the 2016 Winter X Games will start as soon as these games are over. Work heats up in winter with a walk-through with ESPN officials, Wells said. SPT will consult with ESPN on the events for the following games and any differences they want in filming. SPT then works on course designs, which get reviewed by ESPN. Once set, that allows SPT to plan the staffing that it needs and start fabricating the rails and box features in its workshop in Verdi, Nevada, called The Jib Factory.
SPT officials travel to Aspen in early November to consult with Aspen Skiing Co.'s snowmaking crew on how much snow they need and where. SPT moved in at mid-December and started sculpting massive mounds of snow into jumps, pipes and banked turns vital to the various courses. The slopestyle course features three jumps and three jibs, areas that features rails. Crews of three to five workers on the ground have toiled away on it every day for two weeks, and it will require between 400 and 500 snowcat hours to compact the snow and sculpt it into just the right angle of jumps. SPT crews go through a series of related steps to get the courses finished on time.
"It's so much time — it's almost like an orchestrated dance," Wells said.
Binnell said, "It's always thinking of the next 100 steps."
While Binnell was overseeing construction of the slopestyle course Friday, Wells patiently and painstakingly molded the halfpipe. His snowcat is fitted with a long, angled auger called a Zaugg, which reaches high up the curved walls of the pipe. He shaves off inches of the rounded side with each pass, working toward perfection by the time the games begin. By then, he and other operators will have between 350 and 400 hours in the snowcat.
Born to ride
SPT and the Winter X Games are intertwined all the way to their roots. Gunnarson and Binnell were working at the terrain park at Snow Summit Ski Resort in California when ESPN dreamed up the Winter X Games and threw the first event there. The two men created nearly all the courses themselves for the inaugural event.
"Those guys killed it. They did a great job," Wells said.
Gunnarson and Binnell were invited by ESPN to come to Crested Butte the following year to build the features. They saw the opportunities and started Snow Park Technologies.
"Snow Park Technologies has developed as a business the same way that X Games has developed as a brand," Wells said. "They've been associated every since."
Wells, formerly a professional snowboarder, was the first employee hired by Binnell and Gunnarson.
"I've got a phenomenally talented team. What they do impresses me on a daily basis," Gunnarson said. "We're like a family."
That's easy to say, but with SPT it rings true. Wells and Binnell regularly put skins on their split boards and make the hike up Buttermilk several days each week before lifts start spinning. Binnell said the early-morning jaunt through the courses SPT is building gives him a great perspective. The SPT crew also makes sure to find time to ride snowboards together.
In separate interviews 30 minutes apart Friday, Wells and Binnell concluded with the exact same observation: "The day I don't ride, I won't be doing this."
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