It's 10:20 on a saturday morning in Steamboat and dozens of skiers and snowboarders are alternately flying above the well-manicured edges of a 15-foot-high, 600-foot-long halfpipe called Mavericks-the longest in the nation last year.
In the modern parlance of freeriding, Mavericks is known as a "Superpipe," a somewhat arbitrary term meaning, generally, that the pipe is at least 500 feet long with walls at least 15 feet high. If those measurements sound huge (and they should), they're about to get bigger. This fall, Breckenridge became the first resort to buy the Swiss-made Zaugg, a park-and-pipe grooming machine that specializes in building walls well over 18 feet high, surpassing even the capabilities of the Super Dragon and the Bombardier HPG R-17, the previous commandants of the pipe-and-park wars.
"We spent over 20 years learning how to make the snow flat," laments Brad Williams, director of product management for Bombardier. "Now they don't want it flat anymore."
As the size and popularity of pipes and parks have grown (Mammoth's Unbound terrain park will be more than 60 acres this season), so has their visibility. Ever since the concept began at Sonnenburg Ski Hill in Barnard, Vermont-which first gave snowboarders their own play area, complete with picnic tables and hay bales, in 1982-most parks and pipes were hidden in the nether reaches of the mountain. Now resorts are positioning them front and center, either near the base or beneath busy lifts, where they've become Roman theater.
Another reason for the pipe-and-park explosion is that proper terrain-park management can help level the playing field between small resorts and big ones. The vertical at Mountain Creek Resort in Vernon, New Jersey, is less than 1,000 feet, but with five terrain parks and three dozen rails, the resort can hold its own with the best in the East.
"The parks help make up for any deficiencies in natural terrain," says Mountain Creek park designer Shawn Orecchio. "And we have night skiing, too, so kids head here right after school and stay in the park until 10 at night."
According to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), of the 300 largest resorts in the country, 239 of them now have terrain parks. "The number has at least doubled in the last five years," says Tim White, director of education for the NSAA. "And it's clearly a result of resorts trying to keep up with the competition."
Even the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA)-notorious for its glacial pace of change-has, for the first time, sanctioned big air and halfpipe competition for skiers this year, creating another motive for massive pipes.
"I'm all for it as long as they don't stifle the sport," says competitive halfpipe skier Greg Tufflemier. "Either way, it should only add to the number of Superpipes out there."