At the Winter X Games, snowboarders and snowmobilers perform gravity defying stunts on steep slopes of ice and snow. The only thing more amazing than pulling off a cab cork 1080 indy to a frontside 900 is turning a mountain full of snow into an awesome competition course in just a few days.
Chris “Gunny” Gunnarson is the man behind Snow Park Technologies (SPT). He’s an avid snowboarder who turned his passion into a full-time job building innovative snow park features for ski resorts all over the U.S. He has also designed every Winter X Games course since 1997 and now he has a full crew of experts making things bigger and better.
Chris and the SPT team are the focus of a new National Geographic Channel series called Mountain Movers. Each week, viewers get a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into building a course. In most cases, they’re working up against a tight deadline, be it the opening of a resort or a live TV telecast. Unfortunately, there’s one very important person on the team who doesn’t care about deadlines, that’s Mother Nature. If she decides to warm things up, making and moving snow can be a problem.
Usually, Chris and his team are working in below freezing temps, particularly when deadlines force them to work through the night.
SPT employs several experienced snowcat operators. It’s their job to push the snow where it needs to go and flatten the areas in between. To get ready for the X Games, one snowcat driver spends 16 hours just pushing snow for a spectacular halfpipe.
Most engineers work with a computer and a slide rule, but SPT’s engineer uses a chainsaw in order to create the precise edges and angles needed for jumps. And it’s not just about good looks. Since the competitors will be flying across the features at top speed, it’s imperative that every path is smooth and all the features line up properly. One mistake, and a competitor could be seriously injured.
Back at the shop, SPT’s designers and welders build two 36 foot, 1800 pound walls that will be stacked together to form a vertical ramp for snowboarders. This “wall ride” is part of an urban landscape that includes a bridge with railings and a tunnel, giving competitors the feeling of snowboarding through a city park.
It’s a beautiful concept, but unloading and lifting this monstrous piece in the dark, on an icy mountain is dangerous work. It’s all hands on deck when its time to get it done, then it’s on to the next element as the clock continues to tick.
Project manager, Frank Wells, climbs into a snowcat then uses a specially designed cutting tool to carve out the curved wall of a halfpipe. He works through the night, alone and in his element. This is what Frank does best and Gunny counts on him to create a feature that will be the star of the show.
Moving mountains is hard work but when it comes time to test what they’ve built, the guys get to let loose and have fun. They all came to this business because they love skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling, so getting a chance to test their own course makes the long nights worthwhile.
Of course, the real joy comes from seeing athletes from all over the world ride their snow features in their bid for X Games gold.
Mountain Movers airs Thursdays at 8 pm on National Geographic.
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