It's been 21 years since the first purpose-built snowpark landed on the ski scene. During this time the freestyle sport has progressed beyond recognition and the little-known business of building snowparks has quietly evolved into a highly skilled craft.
The first park was built in Vail, Colorado in 1990. This marked a major shift in attitude towards snowboarders: for the first time ski resorts sought to attract them, not ban them. From this point on, freestyle boarding came on leaps and bounds: the fearless nature of the riders and the increasingly creative designs of the snowpark have evolved together.
Behind the scenes
Schneestern has been planning, building and maintaining snowparks for 12 years. Christian Bulander, head shaper and project manager for Schneestern, says building a snowpark can take anywhere between two days and two weeks, depending on the number of obstacles needed. The company has built snowparks for the Stubai Glacier, Lech Arlberg, Rogla, Galtur, Axamer Lizum, and Kranjska Gora to name but a few.
Schneestern start work on the Stubai Zoo snowpark
While each snowpark is different, Christian says the basic process is the same. It starts with an idea and a proposed location, then the following steps are taken:
1. The location is inspected and chartered in summer
2. Using the chartings and geological maps, a 3D CAD drawing is made
3. From the drawings, a 3D model is constructed
4. On location the 3D drawings are used to get orientation for where to put the different obstacles and how they will look
5. The snowcats can then start building the snowpark
6. First the biggest piles are built quite raw and then step by step the different elements are built more and more precisely
7. After this the rails, boxes and other non-snow elements are put into place
8. The final and most precise cut is done in the end with snow blowers, shovels and shapers
Over the years creative challenges have reached new heights. One of the biggest challenges Schneestern has faced was when they were asked to build a snow castle.
Christian explains: "Some years ago, Nico Zacek a former German pro freeskier started a new freestyle event for men called Nine Knights featuring the best freeskiers in the world. The idea was to create a snow castle which was a multiple jib and jump obstacle. This idea had never been tried before and was a big challenge for us, but it was well worth the work and sweat when we saw the result and realised that all the riders and media were totally stoked. Over the last four years it got bigger, crazier and more beautiful. In 2011 we constructed the castle for the girls' freestyle event, Nine Queens, in Serfaus Fiss Ladis, this time complete with a bridge, tunnel, battlements and tower."
Watch Schneestern's construction video of the snow castle:
Recently, there has been a move towards ecological snowparks which use natural obstacles instead of man-made. Burton is a big name in this field, with its snowparks taking advantage of the resort's natural terrain: wood, earth, trees, and rocks instead of plastics and metal.
You can find Burton Stash parks in Avoriaz, France; Flachauwinkl, Austria; Northstar, California; The Remarkables, New Zealand; Killington, Vermont; and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Burton works to the principal that "Freestyle riding started in the woods and its purest form of progression remains there".
Gnarliest parks in Europe
Vans Penken Park in Mayrhofen recently won the "European Park of the Year" award. Beginner or pro, there are five different lines to choose from according to your skills: the funline, the public line, the proline, the half-pipe and the kids park. Beginners can try their first tricks on mini jumps, advanced riders practice on various rails and pros take off on perfectly prepared big jumps. Highlights include the rainbow-box and the huge wallride at the end of the park.
Half-pipe at Vans Penken Park, Mayrhofen (Reini Rieser by Beckna)
The Stash in Avoriaz is Europe's first ecological snowpark. Designed and built by Burton, the park is situated in the middle of a large expanse of ungroomed snow stretching 1.3 kilometres in length. Slopes wind in and out of trees in the Lindarets forest and are punctuated with wooden obstacles, including logs, tree trunks and wooden tables for sliding, rocks for jumps, trees bent like rainbows, wooden toboggans and ramps.
Riding the tree rail at The Stash, Avoriaz
Nitro Skyline Park in Innsbruck is one of the few parks worldwide to earn the 'in-city' status. You can get to the park in 20 minutes from the city centre on the Innsbruck Nordkettenbahn cable car. The park lives up to its name and offers impressive views of the city. Skyline Park is also home to the N.A.S.A Austrian Masters and the FIS Freestyle Festival. The park isn't one of the biggest, but is packed full of obstacles, with a superpipe (120m x 5.5m), quarter-pipe, skyline kicker, wall ride, and boxes, rails, and tables.
Awesome views from the Nitro Skyline Park, Innsbruck
Get the snowhow
Jump: A jump (aka kicker) is up to 30 metres from take-off to landing
Jibs: Anything that isn't a regular jump, eg wall rides, fun boxes, picnic tables, rails etc.
Rails: Rail used for sliding tricks
Tabletop: Flat part of the jump between take-off and landing
Picnic table/Bench: used for sliding tricks
Half-pipe: Is exactly how it sounds 'half of a pipe' with two concave walls
Quarter-pipe: One side of a half-pipe
Previous article: Top snowboarding resort: Snowbird