How the Winter X Games Course is Made
We spoke with Chris Gunnarson, the President at Snow Park Technologies, whose work includes crafting the course for the Winter X Games.
There are certain things in life that just exist. You don't ask how they exist, you don't think about why they exist, they're just there. Always have been, always will be. The only time you will end up questioning how these creations came to be is when you drunkenly slump in front of the TV at 3am and become hypnotised by the balloon-making process on an episode of How It's Made.
That we do not question the genesis of these things is a compliment to just how good they are. But, when you do fall down the rabbit hole of asking how they came to be, it can truly boggle your mind. Creating balloons is all well and good, but they're small, and when you think about it, a balloon factory isn't that hard to fathom. It's the big, complex stuff that's difficult to comprehend, especially when it's been made by hand, and getting it wrong can lead to injury – or even death.
There's no better example of this than the creation of action sports courses. When you visit a skate park, bike track, or ski slope, it's so easy to take for granted how the place was constructed. The reality is that just a small error in the design and construction can lead to people getting hurt.
With skate parks and bike tracks, at least you're making something that's built to last for the long term. With snow parks, the process is considerably more complicated. Not only are the ramps much bigger and perched on the side of mountains, they're made out of one of the most unpredictable and potentially hazardous materials there is: snow.
To get an idea of how these courses are made, we talked with Chris Gunnarson, the President at Snow Park Technologies (SPT). Chris and his team have been at the forefront of shaping snow parks in recent years, and have put together hundreds – including the recent Winter X Games in Aspen.
VICE Sports: When you're given the task of creating a new course – say, the X Games – where do you even begin?
Chris: We start with the things that are not all that fun or creative, but are critical to understanding how to form a plan for success. Knowing the goal of the project, budget parameters, physical realities like topography, area dimensions, available resources like snowmaking and equipment – all of these things are poured into an initial set of project criteria. Once all of that kind of stuff is established, then we can start the creative process. Occasionally the creative comes first and ends up driving some of the pieces I just mentioned. It depends on the project.
With X Games Aspen, that process can be an entire year of planning – so literally from the end of the previous year's event. There is a vast amount of logistical and operational sophistication with an event as big as X Games, especially because we are creating all of the courses, as well as some other functions, on and off the snow. But we have an advantage in Aspen because we have been in the same location for over 15 years.
With [the recently completed] X Games Norway, it [was] in a new location this year so we [were] starting from scratch. That's a different kind of process because there is so much to learn about the location, the people, and the resources available.
And how does the project come together to eventually make the full course?
Initially our team participates as a group, with a designated project manager, and then the project team is assigned based on the plan we develop. We really try to take a group approach, a collective mindset of shared knowledge to the benefit of every project.
Once on-site, we acknowledge that a variety of factors can dramatically affect the original desired outcome, so it really requires our teams out in the field to be very nimble problem-solvers to get the job done as best as possible, and as close to the original plan as conditions will allow. There are long hours, long days, long nights – even on the smoothest projects.
How big is the team?
That really depends on the project. Big projects may have 12 to 16 members of our SPT crew on-site, and even more that were involved behind the scenes, but not necessarily out on the mountain. Throughout the winter season, we often split up our crews and have two, three, or sometimes more projects happening simultaneously.
And what machinery are they using?
SPT has a strong partnership with PistenBully, the world's leading manufacturer of snow grooming equipment. Additionally, we use a wide variety of hand shaping tools, transition shapers, welders, chainsaws, snowblowers, augers and more. We have these military missile cases that we ship from project to project full of whatever tools, equipment and protective gear we need for that particular job. But it all starts on a computer, which is one of our most important tools for initially establishing a design and plan. All of the details – down to how we load a truck full of jib features headed off to a project – are laid out in a 3D model to make sure that everything we have built at our shop will fit on the truck, and in what order. It's like playing Tetris with massive pieces of steel, wood and plastic.
How has the company developed over the years?
On the snow side, SPT has spent a lot of focus and energy on staying aligned with where the athletes are taking the sport. We really pay attention to the riders pushing the sport, changing riding styles, tricks and progression, and we aim to do our best to create the platform for these athletes to shine at the current level of the sport, which in itself has dramatically evolved in our 20 years of operation.
Our company mission is to constantly evolve and elevate the progressive nature of the action sports world. We try not to put any limits or constraints on what that means, but it shows that we have really evolved SPT from where it started, and will continue to evolve. Always.
The concept of constant change is in our company DNA. It complicates things from a business standpoint, but it's necessary for relevance, which equals survival in our world. And because of the regularly changing environment, there is never a dull moment!
What's the biggest challenge that comes with putting together a course?
Weather. Weather is the biggest challenge because we are relying on the right type of conditions to allow for enough snow to be made, but also how weather affects conditions during the build. And finally, how it will affect things during the actual event days. We have seen it all and it seems as if the weather gets more and more variable throughout every project each season. Of course there are plenty of other challenges, but weather is the most unpredictable and has the biggest potential to create chaos. That's where our collaboration with DC comes in. It initially centred around a work boot that was designed for hard work in harsh conditions. Now there's a full collection, every piece of which is rigorously tested by the SPT team out in the field for at least a year before it's available for sale. The DC designers are really good at product development and stylistic elements, but most importantly, they have been incredibly receptive at taking our real-world feedback and converting it into a collection that we are really proud of.
Has anything ever gone wrong when setting up a course?
Something almost always goes wrong! Machinery failure. Human error. There are lots of examples and tough lessons learned that remind us to maintain our humility. The crew at SPT does such a stellar job working as a team to prevail over these setbacks, and that is under typically difficult circumstances with tight timelines. But we spend time after each project – even the relatively stress-free ones – assessing how we could do it better, smoother, more efficient. We're always trying not to repeat our mistakes and to plan for as many unforeseen challenges as possible.
How do you build on what you've created each year?
We do an "after action report" once each project is completed. The team has a chance to review what we could have done better during that project, or learn from it so we can apply that experience to other projects in the future. Building on something we have created is easier on the repeat projects that have the same location and parameters for multiple years. Oftentimes that is not the case and we are going in with a degree of uncertainty on a new or one-off project.
How much of it is trial and error?
We try to reduce as much trial and error as we can on the big projects or ones with the tightest deadlines. However, when we are constantly trying to push ourselves, or trying new build techniques or attempts to create less conventional courses and features... then there's bound to be some trial and error, especially in the way that things are built out. For the most part, we go in to each project with a clear plan and then either execute or adapt on-site. The toughest projects are the ones that were rushed and last minute, and didn't have enough time to properly plan out. I try and steer us clear of those, but in this industry that isn't always possible.
Do you get feedback from snowboarders and skiers after they've used it?
Of course. Working with these athletes is one of the most satisfying and sometimes intimidating parts of the job. In some ways they are our most important "clients" because if the athletes aren't comfortable and can't do their job, then we have an issue. Our goal is to get just the right amount of feedback, when necessary, so that the athletes don't have to think about courses or features and can just focus on their own performance.
SPT has some close professional and personal relationships with these athletes, who we have enormous respect for. We do our absolute best to try and never let them down.
And is there always a huge amount of pressure to create something new?
There is a lot of pressure even when building good courses or features that are considered "stock" or routine. When adding in new features, new ideas, new creativity, there is always potential for something to be off or just not work out. Especially on a slopestyle course where flow is so critical to the function. So yes, a lot of pressure when creating new things. The US Open, for example, we really push ourselves to create new and unique slopestyle features on a run that presents some logistical challenges with speed and pitch. We look at that as an opportunity to challenge ourselves to get creative and try new things. I've been quoted before saying how concerned I am about slopestyle courses in the future becoming standardised and stale. With that in mind, we try to infuse some new ideas into a slopestyle run that will require some creative riding, while also working in a competition format... and not fail in an attempt to be too creative.