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Zen and the art of terrain park maintenance



By Chris McElaney
Explore Big Sky Contributor

More than a few skiers and snowboarders patiently occupying their spots in a sluggish lift line have scratched their heads in confusion – if not shaken their fists in jealous rage – as a band of baggy-panted, rake-wielding ruffians shuffles through the Authorized Personnel Only lane, effectively cutting the entire queue and hopping on the lift without a trace of guilt.

Who are these chosen ones? They’re certainly not ski patrol, and they don’t look like ski instructors.

Meet your friendly Big Sky Resort park crew, aka “the shapers,” “the park rats,” or more formally, the terrain park attendants. It’s our solemn duty to keep your takeoffs impeccably groomed, your landings free of ruts and clueless bystanders, and to bravely test those brand-spanking-new jumps so you don’t have to worry about coming up short on your landing.

The responsibilities of the terrain park crew are threefold:

-First, to engage in the design and construction of all terrain park features, including but not limited to rails, boxes, jumps, jibs, and other strange, “shreddable” objects that may be dreamt up in the locker room

-Second, to ensure the functionality and safety of the aforementioned shreddable objects through consistent testing and maintenance

-Third, to foster an environment of safety and good-times-for-all within the boundaries of the terrain park itself

A day in the life of the park crew begins with a preopening round of grooming and inspection. The residue of nightly snowcat work – be it perfect corduroy or the occasional bumps left behind by a cat’s errant tiller – dictates how much attention a given feature may need.

Grooming the park at this early hour, while the sun rises above surrounding peaks and ridges, is a ritual of silence and peaceful contemplation. Like Buddhist monks in the morning light, we patiently rake out our Zen garden.

As the lifts open and eager shredders begin to trickle down the slopes, the daily onslaught begins. The park’s pristine condition slowly deteriorates as skiers spin 450 degrees on and off rails, leaving behind grooves in the takeoffs and landings that must be painstakingly buffed out.

Raking now becomes a bit more dangerous. It’s not unusual for the edges of some overzealous rider’s board to come whizzing by, nearly slicing one’s beanie into a headband.

If new features were installed overnight, any rough edges must be sculpted and corduroy laid on their takeoffs. Nocturnal building sessions usually involve a few crewmembers following around a snowcat, struggling to stay within the beam of its headlights while schlepping around rails and shoveling snow into the outline of a feature-to-be.

Come daylight, any freshly crafted features must be tested thoroughly before being opened to the public. Sometimes, this simply means sliding the length of a knee-high box. Other times, it means sending a 50- or 60-foot jump first thing in the morning on a cold set of legs, the wind whipping snow into a low-visibility frenzy, while representatives from ski patrol and mountain operations look on.

Once the jumps are groomed, the rails set and tested, the physical task of maintenance gives way to the social task of gently enforcing park etiquette. No matter how many well-meaning signs are posted, less informed skiers and boarders inevitably make their way into the park, turning boxes into temporary lounge chairs and stopping to tie their bootlaces in the jump landings.

But these wayward groms – with a little guidance – are just as likely to be landing their first boardslide or trying to stick a 360 over and over and over again. That’s the real goal of the terrain park, after all: to provide a place where people are free to learn, free to push their boundaries, free to fall hard or “slam,” and get back up. As long as somebody’s going for it, the park crew has done its duty.

Chris McElaney grew up snowboarding in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains – where the only thing to ride was the terrain park, he says. He moved to Big Sky in 2012 and is entering his second season as a terrain park attendant.

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