After seeing the tricks, flips and crashes at last week’s Winter X Games, it’s hard to understand why someone would take such risks. And yet, terrain parks with similar, but smaller features are ubiquitous at ski areas around the country. Education around how to be safe in these parks is growing. And, as Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports, the efforts are also meant to draw more people to snowboarding, which has seen a drop in popularity on the slopes.
Carbondale resident Wiley Adams clicks into his snowboard at the top of the terrain park in Snowmass Village. Below are several large jumps and rails.
"I’ve been riding the park since I was probably ten years old," Wiley says.
He started on small features and worked his way up. Now, his favorite thing to do is hit large jumps.
"I’d say when I was younger I’d always hit the little features and I’d see the older guys in the big park and I always was in awe of them and I wanted to be at that point, which I am now and it’s really fun."
Adams’ progression from small to medium and finally to large jumps is what the ski industry is pushing in terrain parks. For years, signs have distinguished easy from intermediate and difficult features. Now, the education around progression parks is ramping up. At Snowmass, the features stretch over 42 snowy acres.
"We have a small, a mini halfpipe, we have a big 22-foot halfpipe, we have rails, jumps and rollers," says Yannick Rioux.
Rioux is the terrain park manager in Snowmass. He designed the park, helps build jumps and manages an around-the-clock crew that carefully sculpts the features.
Terrain parks first started popping up at ski areas two decades ago in an effort to corral jumps built by skiers and riders on ski runs. Rioux says the idea was to make the features extreme.
"It was, how can you make that trail as gnarly as possible and make it look rad. Now, it’s more about style and how people hit it, even if it’s a small feature."
As terrain parks have evolved, the ski industry has faced growing pains. Early on, big features precipitated serious injuries. Lawsuits resulted in resorts paying tens of millions of dollars, according to the U.S. Terrain Park Council. Since then, safety has improved. Now, 94 percent of the ski areas in the United States have designated terrain parks.
The most popular features now are small and medium and there’s more of an effort to draw in a bigger user group, and make the jumps accessible for anyone.
"What we are learning both anecdotally and through research in the industry is that it’s important to start small," says Dave Byrd.
He's the Director of Risk and Regulatory Affairs for the National Ski Areas Association. His group is partnering with Burton Snowboards on an initiative called “Smart Style” terrain park safety.
Besides a video on the website terrainparksafety.org, the smart style campaign pushes a simple message to make a plan and look before you leap. Byrd says the idea is to encourage beginners to progress through terrain features.
"What we really want to do is get people excited and confident about their ability and so starter parks, progression parks - very similar concepts. And, Burton has pioneered the idea of the “Riglet” park, which is designed for someone who’s six or under."
With a broad range of options on the snow, the industry is also hoping to attract more people to snowboarding, which has seen a slight dip.
"About 28/29 percent of all skier and snowboarder visits at a ski area, nationally, on average, are made up of snowboarders and that’s just slightly down from a high of 31 percent three seasons ago," says Byrd.
Back at Snowmass, terrain park staffer Matthew Bradway is handing out cards to skiers and riders. It’s safety week and the cards give tips on how to stay safe in the park.
"We’re just basically passing out the cards that let people know what to do in the park - make a plan, look before you leap, easy style it, and respect gets respect. It’s just basically etiquette on how to not get hurt and stay safe."
Terrain Park Manager Yannick Rioux says the injury rate has declined at Snowmass as more people become educated. This as new elements are added all the time. Another progression park will be added later this season for people wanting to work their way through jumps and rails.