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January 2007

Supersize It

Squaw Valley's superpipe take time, energy and a lot of snow to build and every year they wonder-is it worth it?

Written by Tom Boxler, Grooming Manager, Squaw Valley USA | 0 comment

In the greater Lake Tahoe basin, not only is having a terrain park and halfpipe a necessity, but going bigger with a superpipe is fast becoming the norm.

There are thirteen ski resorts within a one-hour’s drive, and eight of them have or are planning to build a superpipe. But all of this comes at a cost, and is there a certain point where a resort decides it is not worth it?

It’s a big question at this time of year. On average, it takes 14 days to complete Squaw Valley’s Mainline Superpipe, which is one lengthy construction process. When our upper management sees the hours involved—203 on average—they can’t help but to question the wisdom of the effort. These hours translate to tens of thousands of dollars in machine time and labor.

Not that we would abandon our pipe. Far from it—we are actually planning to have two pipes this year. Any self-respecting Tahoe resort must be in the game, and we can thank the media for that. “Having halfpipe events in publicized competitions like the X Games and the Olympics has definitely legitimized the superpipe and made it a compulsory feature for ski areas,” says Squaw Valley spokeswoman Savannah Cowley. “Although there’s no way of measuring the ticket sales it generates, not having a superpipe would put us at a disadvantage. That we know.” And the Mainline Superpipe at Squaw Valley has become a legendary feature with its fair share of media attention.

That said, the time involved in both construction and maintenance can really add up, and in the case of our superpipe, other difficulties come into play—both natural and machine-made.

Super Pipe, Super Challenge

For the past five years the grooming department at Squaw Valley has taken on the daunting task of building the Mainline Superpipe. One of the biggest problems is the location of the pipe.

First, there was no perfect spot to place it—each location had pros and cons, ranging from sun exposure and snow availability to the skier access and the traffic issues involved in putting a 500-foot-long object anywhere on the mountain.

The first season of our superpipe was 2000-2001. We were all pretty clueless as to what we were doing, so we hired an outside contractor to build it. It was a nice pipe for what it was, but between its length and location, we soon realized that it was not user-friendly. It had a great northern exposure, thus causing minimal impact on the walls from the sun, but its overall length and skier accessibility forced us to look elsewhere the following season.

The current location of the pipe is one of its major drawing cards, as it has a picturesque backdrop of Lake Tahoe and its surrounding peaks. Plus, it’s easily reached by high-speed six-pack, high-speed quad, or double chair. These lifts also provide access to the Mainline Park situated adjacent to the pipe.

The thinking behind locating the pipe where it stands was to use the natural snow that surrounds it. Squaw Valley is fortunate enough to receive abundant snowfall—over 460 inches a year on average—and keeping the snowmaking cost factor out of the equation has worked out great for us. The pipe is located on Squaw’s upper mountain at an elevation of over 8,500 feet, running east to west. It is bounded on its west side by the Gold Coast Ridge and Mainline Pocket. These ridges act like a snow fence against the strong winds and snowfalls that buffet the Sierra Crest from storms that brew out in the Pacific Ocean each winter. This aspect pretty much assures us of having enough natural snow to build the pipe. The location is not summer groomed and there are no in-ground walls, and this ensures there will be no dirt in the walls, as the pipe gets wider. The downside is that it takes many cat hours to build it.

What is great here at Squaw Valley is the fact that the terrain park groomers work alongside the grooming department. That is to say, we are all “one department,” although the terrain park groomers use specialized grooming equipment. On a mountain this size and with such adverse weather, working as one department helps us utilize our resources better. During pipe construction, we make use of two shifts, working two to four machines at a time. Any more than this in the same area makes the jobsite too congested.

As I often remind the crew each season before we start construction, building the pipe is more of an engineering project than any sort of grooming or terrain park job. The fact that we are using all natural snow for construction from the ground up is quite a mission, considering that the finished the pipe is more than 500 feet long with 18-foot-high walls.

And natural snow makes a great pipe. We find that the farming process mixes the snow well and removes the air, helping ensure a consistent density with no air pockets—unlike some pipes crafted from machine-made snow. And our natural Sierra snow is durable, too: we have noticed no adverse affects on longevity—our pipe lasts until the end of May most seasons.

The decision to start building usually occurs in mid-January, once we feel that there is sufficient snow to build each wall at least 300 feet long. Once we reach this length, we estimate how much snow we have left to farm, and that factor ultimately decides the pipe’s final length.

Getting More Snow

Farming the snow is no easy task. Our main source is the lower reaches of the Mainline Pocket, a short steep bowl of about 300 vertical feet. It is accessible for skiing and riding only by hiking—when it is open. The starting zone is angled at more than 42 degrees, and entry is often via a drop from the cornice. It has become a famous extreme skiing icon depicted in many ski movies.

In a technique I call the “Nepalese rice terrace method,” the operator cautiously makes his way up the steep incline of the bowl. An initial cut is made parallel to the ridge and as far across as possible. While always trying to maintain a level plane, the driver is then able to terrace the snow down the slope, where other machines access a snow trough and carry it toward the walls. We harvest the majority of the snow used to construct the walls using this method; the remaining amount of snow for the lower part of the walls is usually gathered from adjacent runs and ramped up the sides of the walls.

Of course, the deep cut hinders the skiers from going too big off the cornice. But not for long; it usually takes only one good storm to fill in the bowl again.

At this point in construction, hand-held lasers and string lines become a necessity, to keep the walls straight and the flat bottom at an even grade. Due to the undulating grade of the hillside where the walls sit, establishing the all-important flat bottom is extremely difficult. At about the midpoint of both walls, the natural terrain slopes down into a large depression (environmental issues prevent us from filling this void with earth). We often refer to this as The Black Hole because it seems like endless snow gets pushed into this abyss, with little visible result. But to maintain a consistent flat bottom all the way through the pipe, this void needs to be filled, which is all part of the tradeoff for using a natural-snow location for the pipe. Another is the unwanted side effect of creating outer walls with a height of nearly 30 feet in spots.

When complete, the pipe will have a pitch of between 18 to 19 degrees. While this is steeper than preferred FIS specs, we have been able to maintain that pitch, thanks in part to our equipment: our pipe cutter is permanently mounted on a PB300 winch, retrofitted with paddle controls for improved steering. While one might think the main purpose for using the winch is to assist in the uphill cut of the pipe, the greatest benefit is in controlling the pipe cutter while it’s making its downhill pass. The final result is the steeper and faster pipe that Squaw locals are used to.

It Ain’t Over ‘Til the Season’s Over

As if the job of building and maintaining a superpipe is not hard enough, the weather on the Sierra Crest adds to the challenge. We are grateful for the ample snow we have for building our pipe, but in March 2006, too much snow became the issue. After a relatively dry February the snow began to fall nearly non-stop. At the pipe’s elevation of 8,500 feet, the snow was usually accompanied by strong winds, making for near-zero visibility for weeks on end. After significant snowfall or wind loading, we halt all machine traffic in the area until ski patrol can come in and start avalanche control.

The inability to work in and around the pipe during these snow safety situations is a major drawback. Once the pipe is established, any new snow needs to be removed, down to the original hard walls. In a five-week period during the spring of 2006, over 19 feet of snow fell. With the pipe’s height at 18 feet and a length of 500 feet, there was a lot of snow to be pushed down and out through the bottom of the pipe. Since this large load was still in the way, a few of the terrain park guys got creative and built a giant hip out of these tailings.

We took a lot of heat from many people during this period, of course. The pipe had been open for less than a month, and was not to open again until mid April. Trying to keep it open became a bad joke.

And did I mention that the pipe is located directly in a slide path? That contributed to our caution in working in and around the pipe during the storm cycle. In 2004, everyone got to see first-hand why these decisions are made. After a heavy snowfall, a snowslide ripped down from directly above the pipe and continued straight down through it, ending at the bottom. Luckily, no one was injured.

Of course, as with any large construction project, you are going to have these occasional, unexpected setbacks, either man-made or natural. Another example: In 2003, while our head pipe cutter was cutting the pipe, he sent out a desperate plea for assistance over the radio. What we saw when we arrived was unbelievable. While making his cut with the Pipe Dragon, he made the rude discovery that the wall above him had not bonded with the rest of the snow. A large slab of snow sheared off the wall, nearly crushing the machine and the operator.

Springtime also brings a new set of issues. Some of the reasoning behind putting the Mainline Superpipe and park high up on our upper mountain is to guarantee our guests a terrain park and pipe that last well until our official closing, which is traditionally on Memorial Day. With the long days of spring and high sun angle, snow melt becomes an issue. When nighttime temperatures struggle to get below freezing, grooming machines wallow around at best. During April and May, daytime temps on the upper mountain can climb well into the 70s. The south-facing wall bears the brunt of this meltdown. We keep this in mind during construction and rebuilds by adding more thickness to that wall.

The $64,000 Question

Is it all worth it? We have to weigh the benefit of having a superpipe against the resources involved in both construction and maintenance. Squaw Valley is fortunate enough to have the resources to complete a project of this magnitude. In this case, that translates to a large grooming fleet and a crew of mechanics to keep them running. Smaller resorts would have a hard time justifying this commitment.

As for the future, next season we’re increasing our commitment with the planned expansion of our Riviera halfpipe into a superpipe. Located mid-mountain, this pipe is in a more wind-sheltered area, closer to snowmaking, and it is equipped with lights for night riding. It undoubtedly will take a lot less effort to get up and running—and to keep it that way. But we’ll probably discover a few unplanned challenges there, too. Some things never change.