Take 5: A Q&A with Breckenridge superpipe architect Nick Symon
December 21, 2015
BRECKENRIDGE — Here's a secret: Halfpipe cutters are a bunch of nerds.
Just ask Nik Symon, the modest mastermind behind the Breckenridge superpipe, a 22-foot behemoth that athletes, coaches and judges all consider one of the best — if not the best — in the world.
"People say that us pipe guys are kind of nerds," laughed Symon, a native of Big Rapids, Michigan who's been building the Breck pipe for 14 seasons now. "I'll talk to people about the work we do and they'll look at us like we're crazy."
Judge for yourself: Beginning in early November, Symon and his crew (usually one other snowcat) spend three weeks migrating snow up and down the hill at Freeway, churning it into a consistency that's something like snowy concrete. They then spend about a week building the pipe deck and cutting the walls with three or four builders from Snow Park Technologies, a global firm that's been home to more than a few former Breck builders, including Symon's mentor, Brad Hoerter. All told, it takes about four weeks of 10-hour workdays to build a snow monster that lasts from early December until the final day of skiing in April.
Symon and Hoerter are nerds, no doubt about it, if being patient and precise and insanely meticulous makes someone nerdy. They even invented the process as they went along, and it's why top-tier skiers and snowboarders pick the Breck pipe over dozens of copycats across the world.
"It's one of the best (pipes) we see all season and it's nice to have that so early," said Brita Sigourney, a three-time ski halfpipe medalist at X Games. The judges agree.
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"I love the Breckenridge pipe because it's the longest," said Steele Spence, a former X Games ski slopestyle competitor who's now head ski judge at Dew Tour. "Competitors will typically have at least one more trick in their run in Breck."
Even newspapers know that Symon's nerdiness translates into one hell of a halfpipe. Before our interview begins, one of his supervisors at Breck was talking about an old, international headline that read, "Best pipe cutter in the world," or something along those lines. His fellow cat operators had a heyday with that one.
Symon took it all in stride, laughing at the story before telling me how he and another small crew spent one summer excavating Freeway to make the massive, 22-foot pipe walls manageable come winter.
A few days before the pipe opened for Dew Tour practice, Symon stepped out of his cat to talk about the improvised "science" of building a pipe, his unofficial title as the best in the world and what he'll do once the pros leave town.
Summit Daily News: How did you learn to build a halfpipe? It's not like there's a pipe-building school somewhere.
Nik Symons: My friend, Brad Hoerter, works for SPT. He took me underneath his wing 14 years ago when he was the halfpipe guy at Breckenridge and he's taught me everything I know. This will be our 13th year building the halfpipe at Breckenridge.
SDN: What drew you to terrain building instead of typical, everyday trail grooming?
NS: It's an ever-changing beast. Its super challenging and a lot of people don't have the patience for it. When we build it, we build it twice. We build the deck, then tear half of it down to process the snow and get it to a texture like sugar. That gives the wall a really, really solid surface, but it also makes it so the riders can carve into it. It's hard, but it's not icy. It's a big move to do that, but the product is second to none.
SDN: Is that how all pipes are built these days?
NS: Yeah, this is done everywhere at this point. We really want to take our time. The Dew Tour pipe sets the standard for the year and every year we try to figure out how to make it better. With the level of riding and the amplitude that people are getting, we just want to make it safe. Their safety is in our hands and we want to do everything we can to make it totally safe for everyone — men, women, snowboarders, skiers — and that's a hard thing to figure out.
SDN: Is it intimidating to be in charge of such a high-level pipe this early in the season, when conditions can be tricky?
NS: Yeah, absolutely. Brad and them do X Games and all that, so this is intimidating because you know the level that the riders expect. The coaches, too. These days, they are so particular about what they want. It can be super stressful to build and everything, but in the end we just want to have a great product. You know the standards you have to meet, so in essence it makes it a little bit harder every year.
SDN: Do you like having all eyes on the Breck pipe? Your 600-foot-long piece of art is constantly under the microscope.
NS: I do, and the riders know they're coming to a Brad and Nik creation. I'm friends with a lot of riders, a lot of coaches, a lot of parents, and they know what they're getting when they come to Breckenridge: An SPT and Breckenridge collaboration that will be awesome. I kind of like that pressure.
SDN: What happens after Dew Tour ends? Is it time to sit back and relax for a while?
NS: We're training grounds until after X Games, and a lot of riders will take to the slope course and our pipe. It's a two-week program to keep it going, keep it perfect. It's something I've just kind of invented myself. The weather is a huge factor. Hopefully, we always want a snowy winter, and that means we're constantly cleaning out a 600-foot pipe. If it's warm and sunny, just a busy day, it gets destroyed. After a while, you have to re-crisp that vert, cut into the tranny, basically just let it go for a while and then re-do it. That's the two-week program, just going with the weather and the crowds.
SDN: So consistency is your biggest goal in the pipe, even when conditions are nasty?
NS: Yeah, and that's why a lot of teams make Breckenridge their home. They know it will be riding the same way, every day. Our vert is always the same. That creates confidence, and that's important because there are so many athletes here training all the time.
SDN: You said that pipe building is something you've made up over the years. Have you or Brad tried something that just didn't work?
NS: Yeah, we had a Grand Prix here one year (2013) with 100 mile (per hour) winds. That's when we made it a staple in the sport that the winds can shift the bottom of the pipe. I went and inspected it, saw what was happening — it had actually moved — and that was the toughest decision of my life. I had to sit in front of these athletes, guys who need this, and tell them that we had to cancel the finals that day. We've never had someone get seriously injured in our pipe and we didn't want to start. It was emotional, but they supported our decision.
The bottom line is that safety comes before anything. That's the bottom line with extreme sports. If you aren't doing it safe, then basically you aren't caring about the athletes. The coaches and athletes supported that decision and we didn't want a situation like the Olympics, where they push it and push it and it leads to bad press.
SDN: Are you a fan of the halfpipe riding? Do you get the chance to catch any competition, or are you stuck behind the scenes?
NS: Yeah, definitely, we head out with the coaches and riders to get feedback. We digest that, take it all together, and then brad and I will talk about what we need to adjust, if anything. We don't favor anyone — we want a product that's universal for all the riders. A lot of times, if people can go really big, like get 24 feet above the deck, that's when it's going really good.
SDN: After 14 years in the pipe and 16 years at Breck, do you still like what you're doing?
NS: I wouldn't be here for 16 years if I didn't like it. The crew, everyone around you, just feels like a family. The guys I work with are brothers — they're best friends. When you come to work with a bunch of friends it's not too hard to like it. At this point, if you aren't into halfpipe you have to retire because then someone gets hurt. But I will never give a marginal product. The minute I think, 'I'm getting tired and want to see my kids,' that's when you have to step away. You can't do this marginally — it has to be the best. That's what draws me back every year.
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