Pipe problems: Despite changing habits, Steamboat’s halfpipe will return in the fall
Steamboat Springs — The last day of skiing and riding had come and for the vast majority, it had gone.
Crowds swarmed the Mavericks halfpipe at Steamboat Ski Area during the last week of the 2016 spring ski season — a community’s response to rampant rumors that the 18-foot-tall, 350-foot-long staple of the Steamboat Springs terrain park scene wouldn’t be rebuilt the following winter.
“This year, in general, had the best cut on the pipe I’ve ever seen,” snowboarder Tyler Cain said on the last day. “The halfpipe is integral to the freestyle scene here.”
He was one of dozens of skiers and snowboarders who flocked to the halfpipe on closing day for the ski area. They rode down the pipe together, sometimes dozens in the halfpipe at the same time.
They moved on, however, headed down the mountain where a closing day concert was firing up in Gondola Square.
He went through the pipe once, got to the bottom, rode back up and went through again. Then, after another lap, he rode back up yet again, savoring ever minute as the clock ticked toward closing time, 3 p.m.
Eventually, even he gave up, finishing his last run, finally at peace with the day and, if it came down to it, his final run in Steamboat’s halfpipe.
The decision about the life of the halfpipe didn’t come for two more months, after the snow had finally melted and the terrain had given itself up to wildflowers and bike trails.
The halfpipe will return, thanks to a commitment by Steamboat Ski Area and a late-game partnership with Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
That the life of the pipe was even in question, however, says plenty. It’s evidence of a shift in 2016’s skiers and snowboarders and it’s an example of a world-class but out-of-the-way ski area grappling with its identity. It could be a sign of things to come.
In the simplest of terms, skiers and riders don’t use the large halfpipe at Steamboat Ski Area as often as they used to, at least not according to ski area officials.
In their eyes, the slump is not a 10-year thing, or even a five-year thing. It’s more like a two-year thing, but the halfpipe may be the one feature so demanding of resources that a short blip can call its very existence into question.
Steamboat’s 18-foot tall pipe demands as much as 15 percent of the resort’s annual snow-making.
Building it is no small task. The target time to have it ready is generally late December, before Christmas, if possible, but New Year’s Day is often a more reasonable goal.
Maintaining it, too, takes time and energy. The resort has two Winch Cats, the special snow-grooming machines used to care for the resort’s steepest slopes. Grooming the halfpipe demands one of them for much of the night four or five nights per week.
“We have to decide where to allocate our resources, and these things come into consideration when we’re talking about the halfpipe,” said Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. President and Chief Operating Officer Rob Perlman, speaking earlier this month.
The decision that the pipe would be back for the 2016-17 ski season wasn’t made until last week.
“It’s not an easy decision for us to make,” he said. “This, by no means, is about ‘do we love or not love snowboarders.’ Frankly, there are just as many skiers in the halfpipe as there are snowboarders.”
The problem has been neither snowboarders nor skiers have been making as much use of the pipe.
“Utilization,” Perlman said, “is not great.”
The lack of interest in halfpipe doesn’t come as a surprise to Michael Martin, director of Colorado Mountain College’s ski and snowboard business program in Steamboat Springs.
Martin has a finger on the pulse of the skiing and riding community through his classrooms, filled with snow-obsessed students who are among those choosing to use, or not use, features such as the halfpipe.
They’re opting to ride elsewhere.
“I would bet less than 20 percent use the resort halfpipe every day,” he said.
Compare that to the 50 percent he envisioned trekking into the backcountry to set up a small jump in the fresh powder or to build a log feature with beetle kill pine trees.
“If you’re looking at it from a trending standpoint, I wouldn’t say it’s dying,” Martin said. “I also wouldn’t say it’s a really big growth area. Part of that is just the culture.”
That culture has gone for a hike, deep into the woods. Backcountry riding has been a major growth point for the industry, with demand for split snowboards and hiking skins exploding.
Halfpipe, on the other hand, has not.
It’s not as simple as saying terrain parks have lost popularity.
Martin said his students salivate over parks such as Keystone Resort’s Area 51 park, 95 miles away. It has been consistently ranked in recent seasons as one of the best in the country.
Other resorts on the Interstate 70 corridor have big pipes. Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Vail all annually build pipes with 22-foot walls, the standard size for professional competitions such as X Games and the Olympics.
Area 51 has built large halfpipes in the past but went without any the past several years. It did get back in the game this winter, but with a smaller version, a 15-foot pipe.
Much of that jibes with what Steamboat’s seen. It hasn’t been a decline in terrain park usage as much as it’s been a decline in pipe riding.
“A lot of resorts are in this debate right now because of the resources required to put in a halfpipe,” said Jim Schneider, Steamboat’s vice president of skier services.
“The discussions are happening, and you’re going to see resorts make these decisions, perhaps this summer or perhaps in the next year or two.”
“It was a perfect spot”
Snowboarding is booming for Tori Koski, director of the snowboard program at Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
The club has riders in the elite ranks, such as 2014 Winter Olympians Taylor Gold and Arielle Gold, 2016 X Games superpipe champion Matt Ladley and U.S. Snowboard Team slopestyler Nik Baden. It also has plenty of participation among younger age groups, in some cases doubling where it was several years ago.
The problems with the pipe, in her eyes, have to do with layout.
Steamboat’s halfpipe has long been built in Bashor Bowl, to some, a perfect location. There’s a lift that runs the length of the bowl, making it easy to ride laps through the halfpipe. It’s high enough on the mountain to avoid being overwhelmingly slushy in the spring and it sits at an appropriate angle to the sun to keep one wall from melting more quickly than the other.
“It’s a dead area right now,” Koski said, “but Bashor Bowl is a great spot for it.”
She sees it as dead because the only terrain park feature in the bowl is the halfpipe. Bashor Bowl has seen many uses, including as a full-fledged terrain park until the past couple of seasons. Big jumps used to run parallel to the halfpipe, and rails and features waited below.
The ski area stopped building some of that, moved other parts around the mountain and built the Rabbit Ears Terrain Park near — but to some, not near enough — to the pipe.
Rabbit Ears can be comparatively difficult to access, and its pitch doesn’t allow for the bigger features.
In the perfect world for many Steamboat terrain park riders, Bashor Bowl would return to being a dedicated terrain park, one giant play place.
“When I was coming up, they had the whole park in there, probably two dozen rails and small, medium and large jumps,” said Taylor Gold, who went on to win a U.S. Open halfpipe championship and ranks as one of the top snowboarders in the world.
“It was great,” he said. “The lift is super short, so you get tons of laps in. It was a perfect spot.”
That’s possible, ski area officials said, but they’re also excited by other changes to their terrain parks in recent seasons.
They point to the intense usage of Lil’ Rodeo, a small, beginner terrain park near the base of the mountain that was first built in the 2008-09 season. It features a mini halfpipe.
Last winter, they began building “pocket parks” — numerous small terrain parks built into the side of regular runs. Those went over well, too.
Steamboat didn’t sour on terrain parks. Instead, officials questioned whether a halfpipe, in particular, is worth the effort and view parks of all sizes as a better bet for the future. To that end, the ski area opted to keep its terrain park manager, Dave Reilly, on staff through the summer, a first for that position.
“We’re putting him on for the entire summers and we’re building stuff, and we’ll do more than we’ve ever done before,” Schneider said.
There was a time Steamboat Ski Area wholeheartedly embraced the cutting edge of halfpipe advancements.
The resort was building 12-foot halfpipes, then the world standard, through the 1990s. The 1998 Winter Olympics, the first with snowboard halfpipe as an event, took place in an 11.5-foot pipe.
Steamboat then pushed ahead to 15 feet in 2001, again on par with or in front of its rival resorts in Colorado.
Not only were those halfpipes big, they were long — so long, the ski area advertised it as North America’s longest, even suggesting it could be the world’s longest. It stretched nearly 700 feet, about twice as long as what’s been there in more recent seasons.
“We heard from the halfpipe enthusiasts it was too long, that they were almost too tired going through it,” Schneider said. “After a few years, we — somewhat reluctantly, because we wanted this longest halfpipe moniker — took it down.”
Steamboat eventually shortened the pipe again, but took the step up to 18 feet in 2006.
It stopped there, but the snowboard world didn’t. Olympic standard jumped from 18 to 22 feet before the 2010 Winter Olympics, and finally, Steamboat didn’t follow.
By the time athletes were preparing for those Olympics, they were actively avoiding even training in an 18-foot pipe. All those elite snowboarders from Steamboat, the Olympians and an X Games medalists, live and train through the winters elsewhere to be closer to world-class venues. Up-and-coming freestyle skiers and snowboarders from Steamboat also make regular trips to resorts with larger pipes.
There were plenty of reasons for Steamboat to decide to stick at 18 feet, Schneider said.
Cost was a big one. He ball-parked the change from 18 to 22 to cost between $200,000 and $400,000 in equipment alone, before the added cost of making extra snow and the added expense of extra maintenance.
There was another simple factor, as well. Where would one put a 22-foot halfpipe at Steamboat Ski Area?
Schneider said Bashor Bowl isn’t steep enough to support a larger pipe. Terrain lower on the mountain, in view of the base area restaurants, where spectators could watch tricks as they ate their lunch, isn’t steep enough, either, even if officials were willing to dedicate such space in the already-tight corridor.
Maybe there’s appropriate terrain higher on the mountain, but with halfpipe use already on the decline, what chance does a bigger, more daunting pipe have when it’s located in an even more remote location?
Not much, officials decided.
Finally, there’s the big picture.
Maybe a world-class terrain park with big jumps and a huge halfpipe was important for the resort 15 years ago. As the terrain and resource demands for such features increased — steeper pitches, more expensive equipment and more snowmaking — Steamboat has questioned its role in that game.
Now, it’s content to have good terrain parks focused on progressively building skills and leave the flashy, giant features to other resorts.
“It comes down to the fact that our sweet spot is as that family-friendly resort,” Perlman said. “We almost want to be the most family-friendly terrain park out there.”
Perlman spent four years working for Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort in California, where he said terrain parks and huge halfpipes were a big part of the brand. It’s different in Steamboat.
“Our brand in Steamboat is family friendly,” he said.
See you next year
Leaving the big features to other resorts wasn’t a tenable option for Steamboat Spring Winter Sports Club and its burgeoning snowboard program, and that weighed on those at Steamboat Ski Area, too.
“That’s an important part of our brand, too,” Perlman said, considering Steamboat’s big-time Olympic heritage and the ski area’s role in continuing it.
“We take great pride in that,” he said.
That brought both organizations together for a deal by which the Winter Sports Club will absorb some of the financial burden for the building and maintenance of the halfpipe.
“We believe we should have this, and the club is willing to contribute to make that happen,” Winter Sports Club Executive Director Jim Boyne said.
It’s just a one-year fix, for now, but Boyne’s hopeful for a longer-term solution.
Needing the ski area’s pipe was already a fall-back solution for the club.
The city of Steamboat Springs used to build a halfpipe at Howelsen Hill, the club’s main training hill, but Boyne said the equipment broke in the past decade and was never replaced.
He said the money was in line to replace the equipment for the coming season — to build a 13-foot pipe ideal for younger athletes — but the club wasn’t able to reach an agreement with the city in time to make the appropriate purchases.
“We were going to go in excess of six figures to make those improvements,” he said. “That’s something that’s still on the table, but the city has a lot on its plate.”
Still, he remains undaunted. He hopes to have a pipe at Howelsen in coming seasons, and he talks about finding a way to bring a 22-foot halfpipe to town, as well. He even hopes to see the massive kind of jumps that define modern slopestyle events.
The when, where and how of that remains elusive, however.
Instead, Boyne was just happy last week, happy that, after rumors swirled, there would indeed be a halfpipe again this winter at Steamboat Ski Area.
When they thought it was gone for good, riders rode the pipe until the last minutes of the 2015-16 season, making lap after lap on the chair lift.
They feared they were saying “goodbye,” but, for now at least, it was more like, “see you next year.”
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