Since the first competition at Big Bear Lake, Calif., in 1997, the Winter X Games have grown to become one of the premier names in extreme sports events. Now staged annually in the U.S., Norway, and China, the Winter X Games are produced and broadcast by the American sports network ESPN and draw millions of television viewers each year.
A big part of that success can be attributed to the work of Snow Park Technologies (SPT), a California company that performs event development, planning and management services for the Winter X Games as well as other major snow sports competitions such as the Burton U.S. Open and the Winter Dew Tour.
SPT has been creating courses for the Winter X Games since the inaugural event was held 24 years ago. The tradition continued this year at the Buttermilk Ski Resort in Aspen, Colo., where the 2020 Winter X Games drew more than 150 elite athletes and close to 112,000 spectators for four days of competition from Jan. 23 to 26.
SPT designed and built all of the ski, snowboard, snow bike and snowmobile courses in Aspen and was on site during the competition to ensure every surface was meticulously groomed.
Chris Castaneda, director of operations for SPT, says while Winter X Games competitions and special events are now held on three continents, none are bigger than the one in Aspen.
“Aspen is the Super Bowl of the them all,” said Castaneda, adding that an attendance record was set during this year’s event when 49,500 people packed into Buttermilk Ski Resort for the third day of competition. “That’s the largest single day crowd in Winter X Games history, so that’s pretty special to be a part of something like that,” he said.
For X Games Aspen, SPT’s snow building crews constructed eight competition venues for Snowmobile Freestyle, Snow Bike Best Trick, Snow Bike Cross, Ski and Snowboard Big Air, Ski and Snowboard Slopestyle, Ski and Snowboard Superpipe, and Special Olympics Unified Ski and Snowboard, where two dozen medal events were held.
Castaneda notes that SPT’s involvement with X Games Aspen wasn’t limited to course building and grooming for the competition venues, and that a lot of work went on behind the scenes.
SPT was responsible for snow building and grooming in many other areas such as TV platforms, festival village areas and the music stage venue, and also took care of a slew of other operational needs in and around the event.
Castaneda points out that for each Winter X Games event, SPT’s work starts well before the first snow falls. “It begins in the summertime with course design…and then from there we get into the rail fabrication for the slopestyle course,” he said.
“We work closely with [the] Buttermilk team prior to even getting on site,” Castaneda said. “We do summer site visits with all the key vendors and the ESPN players to overlook the courses, walk the hill, discuss plans as they relate to all the different departments, whether it’s the course design, TV location, cabling and scaffolding, branding, all that. “From there, we create a snowmaking plan and then wait and see what Mother Nature brings us for the season. Our crew then gets on site and we begin the building process for all the venues.”
The SPT crew at X Games Aspen included 19 snowcat operators, who arrived on site on Jan. 4 and had everything ready for the first practice day on Jan. 20. Castaneda notes that for this year’s event, the SPT course builders switched things up a bit.
“Every year, we’ll change our Slopestyle jib course to keep it fresh. We’ll find different inspiration from the athletes, from their posts or just walking in the streets and seeing different things,” he said.
Castaneda adds the jumps were also changed-up on the Slopestyle course – a shark fin transition jump replaced the traditional money booter jump at the end of the course, and a fourth jump was also added to the overall jump line. “Adding the fourth jump kind of tightened things up a bit, so you had to be on your A game as an athlete, going from jump to jump,” he said.
Something else that the X Games competitors had to contend with this year was snow. According to Castaneda, the weather was perfect for building during course preparations, but once the event got underway, some white stuff appeared. “One of the main challenges we typically face with any event is the weather,” he said. “It’s funny, but the last thing you want is snow once the build is done, when you’re TV ready.”
Castaneda says there wasn’t that much snow and it didn’t fall every day in Aspen, but it did pile up in places due to wind drift and required middle of the night and early morning shifts by SPT’s snow grooming crews.
“Every year we challenge ourselves to consult all the different meteorologists and make the best call we can as to when we should start the grooming process to ensure the best course possible,” he said. “It can be very tricky. Mother Nature can do whatever she wants and it’s a live show, so you’ve got to make sure you’re ready.”
Castaneda notes that all of the machines used to build and groom the courses at X Games Aspen were PistenBullys. “We have a great partnership with PistenBully, so they are our snowcat providers,” he said.
The snowcat fleet for X Games Aspen included three vehicles that SPT travels the country with each year, a pair of PistenBully 400 Park Pros and a PistenBully 400 Winch, as well as a rental fleet of nine additional snowcats: four PistenBully 400 Park Pros, two PistenBully 400s, two PistenBully 600s and a PistonBully 100 transportation cat used to transport VIPs.
“These cats have everything we want as far as being flexible and agile enough to get in and out of the spaces that we need to work in. They’re intuitive and the articulation of the all-way blade [is great] for the precision shaping that we do,” Castaneda said. “All of them are super powerhouse machines that can push a ton of snow as effectively and efficiently as possible.”
Castaneda says SPT snowcat operators enjoy PistenBully cats for their smooth ride and ergonomic design.
“You’re in those cats for hours each day. You want to be as comfortable as possible with every aspect of the cat to get you through the shift, and it doesn’t hurt that you’ve got that premium sound system to keep you stoked and keep the building going. Everything about the machine is just very well suited for projects that we build and the world we live in,” he said.
“Another great thing about our partnership with PistenBully is that they’re out there in the field with us during these large-scale events. And if they are not physically on-site, at a moment’s notice, anywhere in the country or the world for that matter, they are always a phone call away to support us,” Castaneda said.
“During the build process and event, they are supporting us with the general upkeep of these machines because we’re running these cats 24 hours a day. If we have any issues, they’re taking care of us.”
According to Castaneda, SPT’s snow course builders are also able to provide feedback to help PistenBully build even better machines for the future generations of park builders. “It’s a pretty cool relationship that we have with them,” Castaneda said. “We are honored to fly the PB flag [on] every project we are involved with.”