Rail against boredom

Times Staff Writer

Chris CASTANEDA plunges swiftly toward the rail, pops an ollie, pivots 90 degrees as he smacks the thin steel ledge and slides 25 feet -- kkssccchhhh -- before landing -- thwop -- on a velvety layer of packed powder. An aspiring pro from Lake Arrowhead, Castaneda, 24, carves gracefully away, disappearing among dozens of young "park rats" at play on a bright weekday morning.

"This is pretty good, but it'd be nice if they brought in, like, some actual sets of stairs," says one, a lanky 16-year-old named Bret Nolfo, wearing all black. "Maybe just a section or two."

These days, the demand for hardware is splitting the snow business. Within a couple of hours' drive from Los Angeles, you have terrain parks littered with "hits," or obstacles, on which to launch snowboarding tricks; nearby, you have refuges from the terrain park racket -- places where skiers and snowboarders can cruise without too many raised metal pipes or hard-plastic platforms getting in their way.

Bear Mountain, once one of the Southland's top alpine skiing destinations, is now one big terrain park, while its sister area, Snow Summit, largely caters to cruisers. A mountain range away in the San Gabriels, Mountain High packs its West Resort with airbrushed rainbow rails and fun boxes, leaving its adjacent East Resort relatively organic.

Five hours north of L.A., up U.S. 395, sprawling Mammoth Mountain in the Eastern Sierra remains integrated, but in the past five years has doubled its acreage -- from 30 to 60 -- devoted to terrain features. The park there now encompasses about 100 obstacles: a half pipe, super pipe, jumps and hits.

Nationally, the total terrain park count is about 230, and many areas once exclusively "ski" have pumped up not only the number and scale of their boarding attractions but also the volume of the rock and rap wafting through the pines. The number of ski-only resorts left? Four. The number of people who dare to admit they miss the days when fresh air trumped big air? No one can say.

To some the noise is annoying. "I'd always be looking over my shoulder," reacting to the edge-scraping sound of uphill snowboarders, says Joanne Blum, who lives in Boston and works for the Massachusetts Teachers Assn. Now she vacations in ski-only Alta in Utah whenever she can. "Part of it is," she says, "there are no terrain parks."

To others, the expansion, including the clutter on the slopes, is just another sign of what they see as a far-ranging government sellout to resort conglomerates that lease public land from the U.S. Forest Service in more than a dozen states. "I call it a mountain arms race," says Hal Clifford, executive editor of Orion magazine and author of "Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns and the Environment." "[Expansion] trains skiers to expect something new every year."

Snowboarders expect fun every time they strap on a stick. And that's OK, says Sally Miller, a Wilderness Society conservation representative whose district includes Mammoth Mountain. The 60-acre terrain park there isn't oversized, she says, in a place with 3,500 skiable acres. Marlene Finley, U.S. Forest Service deputy director for recreation, wilderness and heritage in California, agrees and points to an overall attitude shift in the past five years toward snowboarding: "Now it's a family activity."

But the U.S. Forest Service draws a line when it comes to the visual impacts of doing business amid nature. It tells resorts within its jurisdiction what color to paint their permanent fixtures, such as chairlift support poles. But as long as hits and half pipes don't display product advertising and disappear into storage with the melting of spring snow, they're cool with the landlords.

The bottom line

Unlike many so-called destination resorts -- Mammoth, Vail, Park City, Jackson Hole, Squaw Valley and dozens of others -- the ski areas within an easy drive of Los Angeles can't depend on either deep powder or a vast range of natural gifts -- bowls, chutes, etc. -- to attract return customers.

"We have only 220 acres to work with," explains John McColly, marketing director for Mountain High in Wrightwood. "[Man-made] terrain features take an otherwise boring run and make it something you'll want to come back for again and again." Fed by its proximity to millions of restless kids -- more than 70% of resort visitors are boarders -- Mountain High ranked third among state ski areas in 2001-2002 ticket sales.

As it turns out, snowboarders are more reliable. They come regardless of conditions and average more days on the slopes -- nearly 23 a season, compared with fewer than 17 for skiers. "The only true area of growth right now is through snowboarder visits," says Day Franzen, who runs the terrain park at Heavenly Valley resort in South Lake Tahoe. "You bring the snowboarders in, you also bring mom and dad."

Pro snowboarder and big-air specialist Tara Dakides, 28, winner of five X Games gold medals, speaks for her generation: "It's not just about making turns anymore. When there's no powder, you've got jumps and rails to keep yourself entertained."

Monotony is bad. Riders demand creativity, and to keep its customers coming, Mountain High hired a dream team of park specialists it calls the Magnificent Seven. All have vast snowboarding and terrain park-building backgrounds, and they regularly change the layouts of obstacles.

Bear Mountain this season is putting rails on the pitches of its runs, instead of on the flatter portions, to make them feel more like stairway handrails its customers like to ride with their skateboards -- and sometimes snowboards, using trucked-in snow -- back home. On a typical layout, experienced riders can transition from 40-foot-long handrails to multilevel fun boxes -- mostly low, smooth hard-plastic platforms -- to plastic or plywood "vert" features measuring 15 feet high.

If dealing with gravity gets dull, at some areas riders can also hit up a separate snow skatepark on the flats. Using a binding-free deck that's a cross between a snowboard and skateboard, they practice foot tricks on low picnic tables, benches, rails, even quarter pipes "It's a novelty act, but pretty fun," says pro snowboarder Todd Richards. "I don't get too into it. If I blew myself out on a snowskate and couldn't snowboard, I'd probably feel pretty stupid."

A subcultural spinoff of nonconformist skateboarders, snowboarders began crashing the slopes in the early 1980s. They wore one plank instead of two and wove wide turns, often across the path of skiers quick-turning down the fall line.

"People used to spit at us from the chairlifts," recalls Circe Wallace-Hetzel, a former pro snowboarder and now an executive for IMS, an action sports management firm in San Clemente. "To them we were absolutely rebels. But we were fearless."

And inventive. They built hits and flew off them with impunity. They slid over the arcing trunks of saplings bent by heavy snow, atop resorts' stairway handrails, picnic tables and rooftops. There were collisions, fights, injuries and even occasional fatalities. But along with the bad came a new revenue stream. As the ski industry sagged, snowboarding took off.

Donner Ski Ranch in North Lake Tahoe, Stratton in Vermont and Breckenridge in Colorado embraced them by 1983. The Southern California resorts, Mammoth Mountain, Squaw Valley in the Lake Tahoe area and others held out until the late 1980s. Today, only Mad River Glen in Vermont, Deer Valley and Alta in Utah, and Taos resort in New Mexico ban boarders.

In 1990, Bear Mountain built what is believed to be the world's first terrain park -- using wooden cable spools, discarded handrails, fire hydrants and other debris strewn haphazardly -- on an isolated run called Outlaw. "They had to stick us over in the corner," recalls Dakides.

Today, the parks sit in prominent locations, providing easy access and constant entertainment for spectators, and the economic and public pressure is on to keep park rats happy.

Perhaps no one is more amped about the terrain park explosion than Chris "Gunny" Gunnarson. Nor has it benefited anyone more than him. A former ski patrolman and sponsored rider, he has parlayed his creativity, knowledge of snow, slope traffic flow and skateboarding culture into a full-time gig as perhaps the world's premier park designer and consultant.

He laid out the first park at Snow Summit, before the emphasis on park features shifted to Bear Mountain, by imitating what he saw on the streets. And he helped transform Bear into a total terrain park. "We were just emulating what was cool in skateboarding," he recalls. "And in a lot of ways, we still are."

An urban look

It's the balmy calm of October, before the storms roll in, and Day Franzen, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, is sorting through a heap of kinked and curved rails and assorted fun boxes beneath a mid-level chairlift at Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe. He's trying to figure out how he's going to bring more of the metropolis to the mountain.

"Today everyone wants the full urban look," the resort's new terrain park manager says. "I'll just drive around downtown somewhere and I'll see something that looks cool and adapt that to something I put on the hill."

Across Lake Tahoe to the west, Squaw Valley USA vehicle maintenance director Joe Carletti is taking delivery of three new Pisten Bully snowcats. Two of the 44 heavy machines in the resort's fleet are Park Bullies, designed specifically for maintaining a terrain park. Outfitted with blades, paddles, tillers, augers and winches, they do everything from moving and packing snow to carving half pipes to hauling rails and fun boxes.

The Pipe Dragon sculpts and maintains half pipes and super pipes, the marquee attractions in some parks. And grooming is paramount to high performance. The park managers recognize that the seasoned boarders know which machines have been through their pipes.

A few miles away, at Northstar-at-Tahoe, a helmeted Brian Picard wields a welder's torch, touching up the metal frames of fun boxes for Northstar and nearby Sierra-at-Tahoe. And down south at Mountain High, a muralist airbrushes the faces of demonic characters on the paneling of rainbow rails (a metal arch that may rise a dozen feet above the snow) and fun boxes.

It's a lot of artifice, a lot of personnel, a lot of money in new machinery -- all for a master barely old enough to shave.

"Go big or go home," Nick LoPresto, 18, yells to a friend sliding by at mid-slope on Bear's main trail one recent chilly weekday morning. The friend slides to a stop and turns to hurl a snowball at his tormentor.

Going big is just what Patrick Jansen, 19, has in mind when he attempts to ollie onto a high and wide fun box at mid-mountain -- and promptly catches an edge and goes down in a heap.

"I took a digger and just about broke my neck, so no more for today," he says at the top of the lift. "Some of these guys are pretty good to watch, but I'd say some of the spills are even better."

He gets plenty of laughs, but no argument from his friends.

Times staff writer J. Michael Kennedy contributed to this report.

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