Dream Jobs: Terrain Park Designer

We caught up with X Games course designer Chris “Gunny” Gunnarson to talk about the future of park design, secret halfpipes in Silverton, and skiing with Justin Timberlake.
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Chris Gunnarson at the X Games

Chris Gunnarson in his office.

Editor's Note: In 2018, Gunnarson left SPT. The text is updated to reflect this.

Chris Gunnarson is the former President and General Manager of Snow Park Technologies (SPT), a company specializing in terrain park design and execution. If you have ever watched skiing in the X Games before 2018, you’ve seen his work.

Tell us a bit about Snow Park Technologies.

I started SPT [in the mid 1990s]. For a few years prior I had been running the terrain park at Snow Summit in Big Bear, the birthplace of the park movement. Snow Summit was the venue for the inaugural Winter X Games and ESPN gave me an opportunity to design the courses from day one. It seemed like the natural next step was to begin developing a team of the best people shaping snow and turn it into a legitimate business.

When designing a park is there a balance point to ensure the park is suitable for both skiers and snowboarders?

A great park is great for both kinds of riders. I don’t feel like there are specific feature types that cater to one or the other. A well-designed park has great flow and variety so that everyone has a positive experience.

I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter about “big mountain parks.”

I don’t care how people choose to enjoy their time on the snow, as long as they are having fun. We have created a few stash parks. The concept of the stash was to combine park elements with natural features, throw in some local flavor and ultimately create a branded experience that a family of four could enjoy just as much as an advanced skier. It was really inspiring to work alongside Jake Burton to help create the vision on the first stash at Northstar

Does park design progress as athletes go bigger each year, or do park designs push the athletes?

I’ve always believed that the athletes drive progression. In the case of parks it’s a two-way street though. Pro skiers have pushed the parks and competitive courses, and at the same time the level of skiing has elevated as features get bigger and more technical.

I read an article in Outside Magazine that said you have ridden with Justin Timberlake, Emilio Estevez, and Seal— who goes the biggest?

Bobby Deniro once told me, “Never drop names.” I don’t remember any of those guys catching any air. 

As far as going big I have a couple friends, Antonio Esfandiari (the magician) and Phil Laak (the unabomber) who are some of the gnarliest poker players in the world. They come up to ski with me at Northstar. Now those guys go big! Maybe not in the park, but the cash bets they are constantly making against each other? Unbelievable.

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It sounds like your job has given you some incredible opportunities.

X Games newcomer Antti Ollila (FIN) landed in 7th place on Sunday.  Ollila’s run was creative, difficult, and seemed to show a promising future in Aspen.

Finnish skier Antti Ollila puts Gunnarson's work to the test at the X Games

I’ve had some great opportunities to get to know a lot of interesting people and travel to some really phenomenal places all over the world. Some big group sushi nights at cool, authentic places in Japan, partying with rockstars (literally) in L.A and of course each year in Aspen for the X Games. 

The X Games are special because our whole team spends the month [in Aspen] getting ready for Winter X, and the staff is like family. Probably the biggest standout is the Shaun White pipe project we did with Red Bull in Silverton two years ago. Perfect pipe, epic powder and amazing terrain all around, plus a Red Bull helicopter, three snowcats and a fleet of snowmobiles waiting to take you on one good run after another. And we were getting paid. Thank you Shaun and Red Bull!

What’s it like having a career doing what most people do in their free time?

Like most people who started in this industry, I just wanted to have fun and be on the snow as much as possible. I didn’t really imagine that it would turn into a career that would take me all over the world to be involved with so many awesome opportunities. 

Don't have a designer's vision? Check out these other dream jobs in the ski industry.

Originally published in November 2010 for Skiing Magazine's Website. The article has since been updated for formatting, links, and photos.

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