Small-resort terrain parks in the Southeast are shredding the competition. Can terrain parks save the Southern snowsports scene?
Drew Stanley is obsessed. The snow hasn’t even begun to fall and he’s already contemplating off axis 900s, rail grinds, butters, and tail rolls. He gets excited about all kinds of freestyle tricks, but right now, he’s talking incessantly about geometric shapes.
“Picture a trapezoid box combined with a rail and a couple of wall rides on each side. Does that make sense?” Stanley asks. “That’s all I can say. I can’t give everything away.”
Stanley is the terrain park manager at Appalachian Ski Mountain, a small resort in North Carolina’s High Country. There’s nothing overtly impressive about the mountain’s natural terrain; it’s actually one of the smaller resorts in the Southeast. But during the last few years, “App” has emerged as a terrain park powerhouse, attracting national-level events and cultivating a vibrant park scene that’s nurtured some of the most competitive riders south of the Mason Dixon.
It’s a David and Goliath story that’s starting to emerge at a few different Southern and Mid-Atlantic resorts that embrace the park scene. With the evolution of terrain parks, can our smaller, less snowy resorts and their riders finally compete with their bigger Western counterparts?
You have to wonder what Helmuth Heise was thinking when he opened the Marsh Mountain ski area in Western Maryland. The year was 1955, and the “ski resort” was a cow pasture the season before. Heise threw up a one-room hut for a lodge, rented skis out of the back of his truck, and cranked a rope tow to service the mountain’s only slope, called The Face. And just like that, commercial Southern skiing was born. It’s an unlikely success story considering our relatively mild winters and mellow natural terrain, but Marsh Mountain eventually became Wisp Resort, and that solitary ski hill would eventually spawn a vibrant Southern ski industry with almost 20 commercial resorts operating below the Mason Dixon.
“Most of the guys out West don’t even know it snows in North Carolina,” says Charlie Owens, a 16-year-old Boone, N.C. native who skis against Western riders at elite camps and national competitions.
The invention of snowmaking machines in the 50s has helped our resorts thrive on a local level, but it hasn’t improved our natural terrain.
“You can’t add a thousand feet of vertical to a ski slope,” says Joel Rerko, the action sports director at Seven Springs Resort in Pennsylvania. “You’re stuck with what God has given you. But terrain parks are different. Given a certain budget and talented builders, you can build something down here that stacks up against anything up North or even out West.”
Ironically, the terrain in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic is ideal for building a quality park. Terrain park builders aren’t looking for steep slopes with epic vert to house their features. When Seven Springs needed a slope for a new park, they cut a new trail on the north side of their mountain and actually had to mellow the grade to accommodate the progression riders take through a park. And while backcountry skiers crave fresh powder, the fluffy does nothing for park riders.
“All park features are made from man-made snow, even out West,” says Jamie McCourt, park manager for Snowshoe Mountain Resort. “Man-made snow makes a better product. A little natural snow mixed in is good, but powder doesn’t shape well. When it dumps, you don’t want to be in the park.”
Eastern resorts shied away from building quality parks for years, thinking they didn’t have the terrain or clientele to justify devoting sizable budgets and real estate to a collection of jumps and rails. Some resorts are still reluctant to embrace the park scene, but things are beginning to change. “With the amount of kids that come into these parks, resorts are finally starting to understand that this is the future,” says Rerko. “They have to build quality parks.”
Almost all resorts in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic now offer some sort of terrain park, though the quality of park varies drastically from resort to resort. Only a handful of mountains are willing to devote the time and money necessary to build and maintain quality features. Appalachian Mountain has a full-time park staff that plans and designs features year-round. Seven Springs hired an outside company, Snow Park Technologies, to build and maintain their park. It’s the same company that’s responsible for building the park at the X Games. But most resorts only hire part-time park staff, relying on devoted boarders and skiers to perform most of the park maintenance.
“It’s all about the budget,” says Snowshoe Mountain’s McCourt. Snowshoe, which is owned by ski resort behemoth Intrawest, has four terrain parks, including the two parks at sister mountain Silver Creek. But even Intrawest isn’t willing to devote a sizable budget to park features at Snowshoe. “With our terrain, we have the opportunity here at Snowshoe to have the best park in the region, but it boils down to budget and staffing,” McCourt says.
For Snowshoe, it’s a conscious management decision to downplay the mountain’s park potential. “A park like Seven Springs is right outside of Pittsburgh, so you’ve got kids coming over for a single day to ride,” McCourt says.
“Snowshoe is a family destination, and we cater to our guests.”
Smaller resorts without the God-given terrain of Snowshoe don’t have that luxury, and the few that have recognized what a quality terrain park scene can do for their business are reaping the benefits.
App’s three parks are laid out similar to a skate park, with a variety of features in a small amount of space. The design can be a little intimidating for beginners, but it also encourages interaction between the riders, helping to build a legitimate “scene” where riders know each other and feed off each other’s talents and imagination. The evolution of this park scene has allowed App to corner the action sports market among North Carolina ski resorts.
App consistently attracts major national events backed by industry titans Forum, Salomon, and Red Bull. This year, they’re in talks with Rome Snowboards to be involved in a national event series, and Burton has chosen App to host one of their coveted Burton Progression Parks, which is an entry-level park with specific features and layout designed to ease riders into the park. Burton chooses the locations of its progression parks carefully. As a result, there are only nine in all of North America, with little Appalachian Mountain being the newest.
“The riders you find in some of our parks are ridiculous,” says Bruce Persinger, owner of Latitude 39 Videos, which films terrain park moves at Mid-Atlantic slopes. “Every kid you see can 270 on and off rails and throw 540s. Some of them can throw 1080s and 720 rodeo flips.”
A few of those kids throwing 720 rodeo flips are beginning to perform surprisingly well at national competitions. Snyder’s West Virginia University snowboard team placed 4th at nationals in 2009, finishing higher than any other East Coast team, and barely trailing mountain schools from ski destinations like the University of Colorado, Westminster in Salt Lake, and Sierra Nevada in Lake Tahoe.
“All those teams have full time coaches, personal trainers, and a massive travel budget,” says WVU’s captain Corey Snyder. “Some of those guys we compete against are on the US racing team. We’re just a bunch of kids from Morgantown, West Virginia. We had to raise money just to travel to nationals. We don’t even have formal practices. We just get together and ride Wisp. Still, we hold our own. That shows you the level of talent that can be grown right here is amazing.”
A few riders who grew up perfecting their skills at regional resorts have already gone pro. Tom Wallisch, a pro park skier who won the final stop on the Dew Tour last year, grew up riding at Wisp. Louis Vitto, who grew up riding at Seven Springs, is now on the Olympic team. While the stigma that the South and Mid-Atlantic can’t produce solid riders pervades the snowsports industry, it’s beginning to change.
Every year, Salomon takes their pro ski team on a nationwide tour of smaller resorts for the Salomon Jib Academy. The pros teach lessons and a peer-judged competition is held at each resort, with the winners winning a trip to Mammoth for a national competition and training camp. Last year, the Salomon Jib Academy stopped at Appalachian.
“Our pros were blown away,” says Jenny Naftulin, manager of the Jib Academy for Salomon. “The talent level at Appalachian is huge. Those kids can give any other riders at the bigger resorts a run for their money.”
Boone native Charlie Owens won the Salomon Jib Academy competition at Appalachian, earning a ticket to the pro camp and national finals at Mammoth Mountain in California. Competing against the best kids Salomon found on its 15-stop national tour, Owens placed third at the finals. The 16-year old freeskier spent last summer training at Mount Hood with other elite park riders and is moving to Utah this winter to pursue his dream of being a pro skier.
Twelve-year-old High Country skier Lindsea Lumpkin competed in 24 national competitions last season, medaling 15 times. She’s been skiing North Carolina resorts like Sugar, Beech, and Appalachian since she was two. At the end of last season she was invited to train at the Junior Camp Gold Project, an elite camp taught by Olympic coaches. This winter she’s moving to Colorado to train at the International Snowboard Training Center with an eye on the 2014 Winter Olympics and hopefully, a career as a professional snowboarder.
Rerko thinks this new crop of riders who have been weaned on local parks is just the beginning. “In the next five to ten years, if things keep moving in the same direction, we’re gonna see a lot more pros coming from our region.”
While our best homegrown riders are beginning to show potential for professional skiing and boarding careers, they still have to leave home to pursue those careers. The elite camps are still based at Western resorts, and the vast majority of professional riders call Utah and Colorado home.
“If I want to go pro, I have to go where the competition is,” says Charlie Owens. “You have to be seen by the big companies, which means competing a lot, and being filmed by the bigger film producers. It’s about being at the right place at the right time.”
And size does matter, even with man-made terrain parks. A Western resort, like Park City or Northstar at Tahoe, simply has more real estate to work with, so they can offer more features from top to bottom.
“If you compare our features to their features, we can match them in quality,” says Drew Stanley of Appalachian’s terrain park. “But we can’t offer the same quantity of features from top to bottom that a big Western resort can offer. We just don’t have the space.”
But if park builders like Drew Stanley continue to have their way, small mountains like Appalachian will continue to produce local talent able to break onto the national scene. And some say it’s only a matter of time before an all-terrain-park mountain is opened in our region. Big Boulder, outside of Pittsburgh, recently converted the vast majority of its mountain to terrain park features. A similar resort operates outside of Denver, Colorado.
Stanley, for one, is excited about the future. “We’re building a large ski scene with some amazingly talented kids because of these parks. We’ll see more pros come out of North Carolina, and we’ll build off that momentum. There’s not one summer that’s gone by that we haven’t tried to build a better park. We start in June brainstorming ideas and building features. Every year, the park and its features just sort of evolve.” BRO
Sign up for one of these comps and see how you fare against the best freestyle boarders and skiers in the region.
A grassroots event grown from the enthusiastic Morgantown snowboard scene, this classic rail jam features a sizeable purse ($1,000 to the winner) and a killer location: organizers bring in 20 tons of snow in order to fix the 25-foot stairset rail right in the middle of downtown Morgantown.
Morgantown, W.Va. / Oct. 31
Red Bull Butter Cup
This was an East Coast-centric event last year, with stops at Stowe, Big Boulder, and Snow Park, where pros and amateurs impressed judges on custom-made board features called “butterpads.” This year, Red Bull is taking the comp national, and adding a stop at Appalachian.
Appalachian Ski Mountain, N.C. / Jan. 24
West Virginia Open
The big purse ($2,000 for the winning skier and another $2,000 for the winning boarder last year) always attracts the best park riders from the region. This year, the purse has been cut in half (blame the economy), but the best will still likely show up for the slopestyle, big air, and rail comps.
Snowshoe Mountain, W.Va. / Dec. 12
Burton Am Series
This is arguably the most well respected national amateur series running today, with traditional stops at new school meccas like Copper, Bear Mountain, Northstar at Tahoe, and Mount Hood. Seven Springs is added to the venerable list this year. Throughout the series, amateur boarders compete for a coveted spot in the US Open Snowboard Championships, where they’ll throw everything they’ve got at the country’s best pros.
Seven Springs, Penn. / Feb. 27-28