Cracking the terrain park

Date: Feb. 2nd, 2010
Contact: Mackenzie Ryan at Summit Daily News

Chances are you've watched Simon Dumont launch out of the pipe at some point and thought, “How hard can that be?” But, unfortunately for you, it took the famed freeskier most of his life to master his tricks — and you've never even dropped in for a straight air.

Start by seeking the council of a freestyle-accredited instructor.

Like most skills in skiing and snowboarding, learning freestyle begins with reinforcing fundamentals, then learning and repeating progressions until you build self-confidence and muscle memory. Instructors say they want to see guests demonstrate a high-intermediate riding ability before they take on freestyle.

“What we look for is somebody that can make solid linked turns down blue runs with good speed control, good awareness of surroundings, so I guess spatial awareness,” said Cam Hunter, a Breckenridge snowboard instructor and freestyle trainer for the American Association of Snowboard Instructors (AASI). Snowboarders must have an understanding of edge control and how to turn the board in order to set up to spin off a jump or speed-check before a rail, Hunter added.

“We draw the line at Level 7 (which means) they can ski bumpy blues and blacks with confidence,” said Ben Atkinson, Keystone-based freestyle accredited trainer with the Professional Ski Instructors Association (PSIA).

In addition to demonstrating upper and lower body separation and different turn shapes, he said skiers will need to pick a line down the hill and ski it with some rhythm and flow. Skiers need to have a lot of experience in bumps and powder, the ability to adjust their stance and balance in a variety of terrain, and ride a flat and edged ski, he added.

Being able to ski forward and backward without a wedge, Atkinson said, is definitely a bonus. “It wouldn't be necessary for introducing people to park, but if they are going into the park, I would introduce them to those skills,” he added.

Most skiers are not initially comfortable with the wider, “gorilla” stance necessary for absorbing the park's various surfaces — like steel and packed powder, Atkinson said, so they need to build that stance first. It's also important, when learning park, for skiers to build on the type of skiing they are good at, Atkinson said. A racer will be better at holding an edge than skiing a flat ski, he added, whereas a bump or tree skier will excel at skiing a flat ski.

Once an instructor has assessed your ability level, he or she works with you to identify your learning goals and practicing progressions that transfer into park skills.

”Depending on the goal of the student, we have certain progressions that we use to help achieve the student's goal,” said Hunter. If a student want to learn 180s, for example, Hunter said he'll introduce rotation with flat spins and nose rolls and focus on switch riding before moving on to air 180s off rollers, then eventually, a jump.

A lot of it starts outside the park, Hunter said. Beginner freestyle riders first need to master flatland tricks such as pressing, butters, flat spins, ollies and nollies as well as switch riding before transferring those skills into the terrain park.

Flatland tricks — such as on-snow 360s and butters — improve your range of motion and agility in the park, said David Oliver, a freestyle specialist with the PSIA Alpine Team.

“The more you get out of your range of motion or increase your awareness of range of motion from tip to tail, the more agile you become,” Oliver said.

But Oliver takes a more open-minded approach about progression, refusing to set them in stone for every skier who wants to learn freestyle.

“What I try to do is I try not to put a set progression on paper,” he said. “People take that as the all-knowing doctrine, the end-all for everybody to learn it. It's freestyle. Every feature is different, every skier is different, every mountain is different. If we think the end-all is the cure-all, we're kind of locking ourselves in.

Next step, choose a beginner terrain park with a hike-only zone that suits your learning needs.

“As far as progression goes, it's all about the features to start with but also the environment,” said Tony MacRi, the chief examiner for AASI's Rocky Mountain region, who also instructs out of Copper Mountain.

Parks that use the natural terrain well, such as putting a ride-on box near the back of a roller, are ideal for beginner freestyle riders, he said. Hike-only zones instead of flow-through parks, he added, are preferable so students can focus on one or two features and don't need to worry about traffic — or competing for features with other riders. Lastly, MacRi said beginner parks should minimize decision-making. For example, park designers could put small jump lines close enough together to prevent the novice freestyler from trying to judge how much speed he or she has going into the kickers.

”It would be nice if terrain park designers could possibly put some kind of size or measurements on the jumps, because people are always trying to figure out how big they are,” he added.