Countdown to the Burton US Open: building the 22′ superpipe

Jan. 12, 2013

Burton US Open superpipe VailFor 11 straight days, 20 hours a day, grooming cats have been turning a massive pile of snow at Golden Peak into a 22 foot high superpipe that is 600 feet long – what some are saying is the longest superpipe in North America. Industry leader and terrain park consulting firm, Snow Park Technologies, sent in two of their expert pipe cutters to lead the project of building Vail’s Olympic standard halfpipe for the Burton US Open.

When you consider that a halfpipe made out of snow was a controversial addition to the fledgling sport 30 years ago, it’s incredible how important superpipes now are to snowboarding (and skiing) and how far the technology to build these features has come.

A brief history of the halfpipe

The early 1980’s was a time of development and exploration for snowboarding. It was still thought of as a fringe sport by many in the snow sports industry and was only just beginning to hold its first organized competitions. A halfpipe made an appearance at the first snowboarding World Championships in Soda Springs, CA in 1983 – and disappointed just about everyone involved. Some of the more race-oriented snowboarders couldn’t see what halfpipes had to do with snowboarding and the more skateboard oriented riders were unimpressed with the clumpy, inconsistent 4′ high walls of this particular pipe. By the end of the decade, however, resorts were putting money and machines into building a better halfpipe. From digging out a dirt base in summer to help set the shape of the pipe to having grooming cats farm snow to build up the walls, snowboarders around the world were trying out new techniques to build the “perfect pipe”. The biggest advancements came in 1990 and 1991 when innovators started using surveying equipment and Doug Waugh built a bonafide pipe-cutter – forever changing the standards of how halfpipes would be built (read more in Transworld Snowboarding’s article, “A Complete History of the Snowboard Halfpipe” published Dec. 1996).

The Burton US Open superpipe build at Vail’s Golden Peak Terrain Park

Now, halfpipes are an essential aspect of snowboarding and 22′ superpipes were set as the Olympic standard for the 2010 games. This is the first year that Vail has had a 22′ pipe so we brought in the world-renowned terrain park consultants and Burton US Open builders, Snow Park Technologies, to lead the Vail Terrain Parks crew in getting the job done.

In a ride-along with project manager and expert halfpipe builder Brad Hoerter, pictured left, we learned that above all building a superpipe is meticulous. Brad’s been with SPT for 6 years and in that time has worked on everything from the Shaun White Red Bull half-pipe near Silverton to the Dew Tour to the World Snowboarding Championships in Oslo, Norway. While being at all these venues is exciting, the majority of his time is spent inside a grooming cat turning a mound of snow into a terrain park masterpiece.

Here’s a quick rundown of the steps it takes to build a superpipe:

Vail halfpipemeasuring wall of a halfpipe1) Snowmakers make a BIG pile of snow.

2) Groomers push out the snow to lay the groundwork for the pipe. “90% of our time is moving snow where it needs to be,” Brad says, “10% is actually shaping and measuring (the pipe).”

3) Slowly but surely they build up the walls to 24 feet – accounting for the 2 foot high flat in between the walls. They focus on building up one wall first then reference it to complete the other wall. Brad and his team are constantly hopping out of their cats to measure what they’ve completed and check the lines of where they need to continue cutting. Ensuring that the walls are even and straight is an essential – and tedious – aspect of his job. “A half-pipe is such a colossal pile of snow”, he says, “buit it comes down to a matter of inches, half-degrees…the slower you go, the better it turns out.”

4) As they build up the walls, groomers prep the snow to ensure consistency throughout the wall of the pipe. In Brad’s words: “we process snow, churn it up so walls don’t have air pockets or holes. We take the extra time to process snow to be sure (the superpipe) lasts the entire season.”

5) Once the shape of the first wall is built up, they “grate it out” by setting a rope line then use a chainsaw to create a straight edge. Once that wall is rough shaped they complete the other wall and also make sure that the floor of the pipe is smooth and even with the decks of the walls.

6) Then, finally, it’s time to focus on creating those smooth, elliptical walls of the pipe. After “stepping out” the snow to create a rough shape of the side wall, it’s time to bring in the Zaugg 22′ Pipe Monster to cut the walls. This piece of machinery is one of the most famous parts of pipe making, but it is only used in the last day or two of the entire build.

RAW VIDEO: the Zaugg 22′ Pipe Monster at work on Vail’s superpipe

The superpipe opened Saturday, January 12th to rave reviews from skiers and riders. It’s also the ultimate Hollywood run – you can view the pipe from vantages throughout Vail Village, the One gondola and, of course, right from the Golden Peak base area.

“It’s awesome for all of us at SPT to be partnering with Vail and Burton to create the best snow features ever for this year’s Burton US Open,” says Chris “Gunny” Gunnarson, SPT president. “Already our team has been working at Vail to build the longest superpipe in the competition circuit this season. At 600 feet the riders should be a able to add on an extra trick to their runs during the competition.”

Snow Park Technology’s Instagram photo of the final superpipe build:

golden peak vail

Click here to see more photos of the superpipe build and opening.

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