Building for big air

Mike Campbell

Olympic silver medalist Danny Kass trains on one in Oregon. Gold medalist Hanna Teter does the same in California.

But until this winter, Alaska snowboarders wanting to hone their moves on a real halfpipe needed an airplane ticket along with their gear bag and board; the nearest pipe large enough for competition is at Whistler Resort in British Columbia, the 2010 Olympic site.

Come December, though, Alyeska Resort expects to open the Alyeska Pipeline Superpipe midway up Chair 7. At 300 feet long, 55 feet wide, with 18-foot walls, it is essentially what casual fans see on television during the Winter X Games or the Olympics.

"Having a superpipe in Alaska is amazing," said Paul Kelly, head coach of the Big Alaska Snowboard Team. "Almost every resort in the country has a halfpipe, and with ... the Olympics, it's becoming more and more popular with younger riders. It's huge with the snowboarding population."

He's not alone.

"Everybody's psyched," said Rene Requa, who owns World Cup Sports in Spenard. "There's not that many of them in the country. It's going to change the whole scope of Alyeska.

"The kids are all over it, all over it. And there's some pretty hot kids around here who've built their own jumps and terrain features."

Halfpipes have helped drive snowboarding, BMX, skateboarding and inline skating to worldwide prominence. By 1998, the Winter Olympics included snowboarding, and the sport's TV ratings have ensured a long union with Olympic organizers.

Alyeska's superpipe is essentially a large halfpipe. While there is no standard for superpipe design -- as there is, for instance, for football fields and basketball courts -- most have walls over 16 feet on both sides. Typically, two concave ramps -- quarter-pipes -- are separated by a flat bottom. Riders drop into a halfpipe, riding back and forth with increasing speed that powers their aerial acrobatics.

Winter athletes perform on halfpipes cut into snow. The first came in 1979 when Mark Anolik stumbled upon a spot that seemed like a natural at the Tahoe (Calif.) city dump.

Most early halfpipes were created by hand or using heavy machinery. Enormous amounts of manual labor were needed just to make the pipe functional.

Four years later, Soda Springs (Calif.) hosted the first organized halfpipe competition at the World Snowboarding Championships on, essentially, two lines of chunky snow built into a natural slope.

Machinery would soon take over pipe construction and maintenance, and in 1991, Colorado farm machinery mechanic Doug Waugh developed something called a Pipe Dragon to groom the pipe. The Zaugg Pipe Monster machine that Alyeska purchased is a descendant.

The Pipe Monster uses five cutting edges to shape snow; in just a couple of passes it can turn beat-up snow into a groomed halfpipe that's perfectly dialed in.

While some superpipes are cut entirely in the snow, most experts prefer to dig a trench in the dirt before the snow flies, which is what Alyeska is doing. With vigilant maintenance all winter, a base of about 6 inches of snow suffices -- potentially a key advantage for a ski resort at sea level that's accustomed to regular bouts of winter rain.

"One reason why pipes have become such a huge part of the industry is that they hold up," said Sandy Chio, Alyeska's director of marketing. "You want snow you can mold, and moisture in the snow on a halfpipe doesn't affect your experience much."

Alyeska estimates construction of the superpipe and purchase of the Zaugg Pipe Monster will cost a total of $250,000. Whether the resort can recover those costs in this economy without an big influx of new skiers and boarders is the big unknown.

"We've got a young skiing and snowboarding population that we think is in the backcountry more -- maybe down at Turnagain Pass or at Hatcher Pass," Chio said. "I'm hearing a lot of excitement out of that group about having a place to free-ride in-bounds. We're hoping to attract skiers and riders we haven't seen in a couple of years."

Additionally, Chio said, the move dovetails with owner John Byrne's efforts to make Alyeska more family-oriented. While Mom and Dad ski, kids can shred at the superpipe.

"This is going to be great," said Alyeska's parks and pipe supervisor Matt Parisen. "We've been working on it since the end of August ... and hope to wrap it up in a week."

Sunday's snowfall added a little momentum.

"It's amazing how a few inches of light, fluffy powder can make a world of difference," Chio said.

And having its superpipe humming by the time the Olympics roll around in February is critical. That's when the sport gets its biggest pulse of publicity in four years.

"If Mother Nature does her part, we'd like to have it open by the (end-of-year) holidays, Chio said. "The entire reason you invest in something like this is because it's what the kids and the youth and the snowboarders want."

But there is some risk.

"That's exactly what we have," said Kirstin Cattell, communications manager at Sierra-At-Tahoe resort in California. "It's competition-grade.

"Not a lot of resorts have them, and they're very expensive to maintain. We're the only one on the south shore (of Lake Tahoe). But we're super-committed to freestyle skiing and boarding."

For Sierra-At-Tahoe, the superpipe is one way the resort can distinguish itself from other California resorts. Alyeska, by contrast, has little competition -- but similar expenses.

"It's definitely prestige," Cattell said. "Our superpipe brings people to our resort. They make a decision to come because of the superpipe, and there's no doubt teenage kids push that with their parents."

Those parents will encounter the same lift ticket prices at Alyeska this season -- $55 with $5 for a rechargeable Alyeska Access card. Two years ago, it was $48.

"The biggest thing," Kelly said, "is they're not dropping their pass prices in an economy where it seems like every resort is halving their season passes. We don't have a million people to come to the resort."

Boarders will quickly notice how well the halfpipe is groomed, he said.

"It takes a lot of man-hours to make it work," Kelly said. "But that can pay off. People who wouldn't go to the mountain on a bad day, an icy day, will go because a well-groomed halfpipe will be fine."

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at or 257-4329.

What else is new at Alyeska

5 New Runs: All five are on the North Face, on terrain that Alyeska owner John Byrne describes as “rowdy.” It’s expert skiing through thinned-out trees, or what is known as gladed terrain. The five new runs are: Jay’s Way, Big Dipper, Little Dipper, North Star and Northwest Passage.

Extended Night Skiing: Night skiing will be offered another two weeks in March. The season is now Dec. 17-March 27 on the tram, as well as Chairs 1 and 3 from 4-9 p.m.

Spring Hours: All chairs will run 11 a.m.-6 p.m. daily April 1-25, pushing the hours of operation 30 minutes back in response to growing spring daylight. Weather permitting, Alyeska will be open for skiing and riding on weekends April 30-May 31.