IF PEOPLE WANT to understand why skiers and snowboarders spin and flip through the air, they have to try it for themselves.
When Nicoll first dared a run through one of Whistler Blackcomb’s intimidating terrain parks, she had plenty of inspiration to draw on.
“I moved back to Whistler when I was 12, and there happened to be a halfpipe on Blackcomb right when you got off the lift,” she recounted in a phone interview. “You could see all the pros riding it. I remember, back in the day, when we had the Westbeach Classic on Whistler, and Shaun White and Todd Richards and all those guys would come out. That was really cool.…If that wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
Where Nicoll is now is near the top of professional snowboarding. The two-time Olympic competitor placed sixth in the 2010 Games and, more recently, successfully defended her women’s halfpipe title at the 2013 Snow Crown nationals in Calgary. This season, she has her sights set on a podium at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Having Whistler Blackcomb’s terrain parks and halfpipes in her back yard definitely hasn’t hurt those ambitions. “There is nothing like practising in your own country,” Nicoll said.
Halfpipe and, for the first time at the Olympics, slopestyle competitions are events that draw crowds by the thousands. But it wasn’t until the early 1990s that resorts even allowed these activities on their hills. Jumps and rudimentary halfpipes were largely adapted from natural terrain features and had to be built by the skiers and snowboarders riding them.
“Times have changed,” said Brian Finestone, Whistler Blackcomb’s park and pipe guru. In a phone interview, he provided the Straightwith a little bit of history and divulged something special he has planned for Blackcomb’s “highest level” terrain park.
“When I saw the spec for the Sochi slopestyle course…I said, ‘Let’s duplicate that,’ ” Finestone revealed. “ ‘Let’s do that a) so that the [Canadian Olympic] team guys can come and train on it if they want to, and b) so that everybody else who can ride that level can test their mettle against an Olympic type of course.’ ”
He said Whistler Blackcomb gives him the resources to “pretty much do whatever we want”. But it wasn’t always that way.
“I came out here in the early ’90s as a snowboarder with starry eyes,” he recalled. Back then, Finestone said, he was building halfpipes by hand. Today, he has 15 park-specific grooming machines, a day crew of about 15 staff maintaining the resort’s various parks and pipes, and another team of 12 people working night shifts, building new features to keep regular riders coming back.
“On a day with good visibility, we’ll see 14,000 descents through the park on each mountain,” Finestone said, “[and] 28,000 terrain-park laps a day.”
For that, he gives a lot of the credit to Stu Osborne, a Whistler legend who moved to B.C. around the same time Finestone did. With snowboarders still something of a collective pariah on hills that for more than a century were solely the domain of skiers, Osborne wasn’t immediately welcomed by management. But it wasn’t long before he convinced the resort to create a position for him.
“It was sort of his begging and pleading that got them their first Pipe Dragon [a vehicle used to carve halfpipes],” Finestone recounted. “Then he talked them into buying park-specific grooming machines that had bigger blades, a bit more power, and better pushing capabilities. And over time, it became a line item in the budget, and then it became an entire department.”
As the money and manpower going into parks and pipes have increased, so has the complexity of the tricks that riders are launching out of them.
Two-time Rolling Stone cover man Shaun White trained for the 2010 Winter Olympics on the world’s first private halfpipe, which, Finestone guessed, cost sponsor Red Bull something in the neighbourhood of $60,000. That project let White perfect a double-McTwist 1260 (two flips performed while spinning three-and-a-half rotations) that he employed in Vancouver to earn a gold medal. More recently, Simon Dumont’s team used lasers to design a “cubed pipe” at Squaw Valley that sent the U.S. freestyle skier spinning and flipping over gaps at heights of four or even five storeys.