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Shaun White, being Shaun White, should have access to just about any halfpipe he chooses to drop into. Yet this year even the face of snowboarding had trouble tracking down a suitable site to train for his fifth and final Olympics.
The fresh-cut halfpipe he had lined up last spring shut down abruptly because of COVID-19. Then the one carved into the snowfield on Oregon’s Mount Hood — a feature that has become a summer training staple for many elite athletes and that White said he remembered hearing “was going to last forever” — mostly melted during a heatwave. But even in the winter, halfpipes are increasingly rare to find.
“We’re pretty used to not having a lot of training just because halfpipes are pretty hard commodities to find these days,” said Salt Lake City halfpipe skier Brita Sigourney. “So we really don’t ski them all that often compared to how much other athletes probably train in their sport.”
For an athlete with Olympic aspirations — Sigourney and Park City residents Devin Logan and Carly Margulies competed in the women’s halfpipe qualifying at the Beijing Winter Games on Thursday — that can be an issue.
Only 11% of North American resorts reported having halfpipes last season, according to the National Ski Areas Association, down from 15% in 2019-20. In the late ‘90s, a little more than a third of all resorts built pipes, according to the Wall Street Journal. Those statistics refer to halfpipes of all sizes. Resorts with superpipes, the half-barrel structures with 22-foot walls such as those used in elite competitions like the X Games, World Cups and the Olympics, are even more of a novelty.
“I could count them all on one hand, more or less,” said Danny Davis, who won the X Games superpipe titles in 2018 and ‘19.
Davis then proceeded to try to count them: Mammoth Mountain in California, Copper Mountain in Colorado and Utah’s Woodward Park City (though Woodward’s falls about 200 feet short of competition length). That’s about it, he said, before ticking off just a few that once had them but don’t anymore: Mount Bachelor, the Palisades, Killington. Even international options have dwindled to just two or three.
So what happened to all the halfpipes?
They’re a casualty of corporate takeovers. Or climate change. Or a decline in interest. Or all of the above.
It sort of depends on who you ask.
“Halfpipes are getting fewer and fewer all over the place because it takes so much snow,” said Maddie Mastro, who competed on entirely manmade snow in the Olympic snowboard event in China. “And that’s been a big challenge, is finding halfpipes and building the halfpipes. So I’ve seen a big difference in having that affect my sport.”
The pandemic could also be playing a small role in the reduction. NSAA spokesperson Adrienne Saia Isaac said some resorts cut back on amenities due to the uncertainties surrounding last season. That could explain the year-to-year drop but not the decline over time.
White sees it as a simple supply-and-demand issue. Not that many people need a 22-foot pipe, which has become the competitive standard over the past decade. For most, an 18-foot halfpipe or even the 14 ¾-foot pipe at Park City Resort that was used for the 2002 Winter Games, is plenty. (Park City has since upped its halfpipe to 22 feet.)
“A really well-cut, quality halfpipe, there’s only so many of those in the world because there’s only so many people that want that, I’m assuming: me and my buddies,” White said. “It’s difficult to come by in that sense.”
What goes into building a halfpipe?
That well-cut halfpipe? It doesn’t come cheap.
Benny McGinnis spent the better part of a decade fetching tools and following around his mentor, Tyson Terpening, at Sierra at Tahoe Resort in California before he finally got to build his first halfpipe. Now in charge of building them for Woodward Park City, McGinnis believes shapers leave shards of their souls in their halfpipes. That’s how much time they spend making them.
“So it’s about two weeks, two [snow]cats, 10 hours a day. Start to finish,” he said. “We have 1,400 hours of snowmaking in, five million gallons of water. And we do not have an Olympic-length halfpipe.”
The Woodward PC pipe falls about 200 feet short in length but otherwise has all the specifications and width of a competition venue, including the 22-foot walls. But carving those walls requires a specialized and expensive piece of equipment. Called a Zaugg, it’s an auger that fits on the front of a snowcat and cuts the walls at the 45-degree angle that makes for the biggest air off the lip and the smoothest transitions. It costs about $125,000, McGinnis said, and the snowcat is another $300,000.
With that kind of price tag, plus the work hours, energy costs and liability considerations, resorts have to closely evaluate whether a halfpipe appeals to their clientele. And as companies like Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Company buy up more resorts, there’s less need for each property to have its own pipe.
“They’re a stress on resources at the mountain, financially and physically,” McGinnis said. “So I just don’t think that the resorts are making the investment. It doesn’t make sense for a large company like Vail to have, you know, seven 22-foot half pipes. If they have one or two that are perfect, they know that the group that needs that will go to those mountains.”
The difference between those resorts and Powdr, a Park City-based operator that counts Woodward Park City among its more than 10 ski areas, McGinnis said, is that Powdr sees halfpipes and their terrain park and slopestyle course cousins as assets.
“And an asset is something that you want to invest money in,” he said. “Whereas other resorts might see them as a liability.”
For the skiers and snowboarders who compete on them, though, they’re a necessity — though only an intermittent one.
How do Olympic halfpipe riders train then?
Devin Logan said she moved to Utah as a young skier because, in addition to being the home of U.S. Ski & Snowboard, it had a halfpipe to train and compete on. The 30-year-old placed fifth at the world championships at Park City when she was 18, two years before she made the national team. She stayed because she liked the area, so she found creative training alternatives.
“It’s definitely self-determination,” said Logan, who finished 13th in qualifying, one spot off the finals cut, “that, you know, we don’t necessarily have halfpipe at the moment.”
Honestly, the 32-year-old Sigourney said, at this point in her career she probably wouldn’t spend too much more time training in the halfpipe than she does already.
“I still get a lot of joy out of it,” the three-time Olympian said, “but the halfpipe has caused me a lot of pain.”
So she practices jumps on trampolines or sometimes into an airbag. But she said most of her training is just freeskiing at Alta or one of the other nearby resorts. That approach hasn’t seemed to hurt her much. The 2018 bronze medalist took second in the most recent X Games in Aspen, Colorado, last month and has qualified for Friday’s Olympic halfpipe final at the Genting Snow Park in Zhangjiakou.
Since they’re not getting many opportunities to drop in, athletes are making the most of it when they do. And the one at the Beijing 2022 Games hasn’t disappointed. In the men’s snowboard event, Kaishu Hirano flew a record 24 feet, 4 inches above the lip.
As Sigourney said in a pre-event interview, “It looks like you can go as big as you want, so I’m excited for that.”