ASPEN, Colo. -- High above the Buttermilk Mountain base area sits a 54-foot tower of scaffolding. A staircase leads to the top floor, where a four-foot-tall island of snow roughly the size of a lifeguard's platform is the center of attention. From that perch, the world's most innovative snowboarders begin a six-second straightline down a ramp of snow toward a giant jump that serves as the sport's ultimate launching pad.
Unlike ski and snowboard slopestyle and halfpipe, big air -- which features single-trick runs judged according to their difficulty and creativity -- is not an Olympic event. Yet if one were to take stock at the end of each year and measure how much freeskiers and snowboarders evolved, big air would be almost exclusively responsible. This is particularly true each January at the X Games.
To place well, said first-time America's Navy Snowboard Big Air competitor Torgeir Bergrem, "You need to think of stuff that no one else has ever thought about," then bring it to life.
Before Friday night, no snowboarder had ever landed an off-axis triple flip with four and a half rotations in competition. It didn't take long before three riders -- Bergrem, Yuki Kadono and eventual gold medalist Max Parrot -- stuck the trick to perfection then moved on to more difficult maneuvers. By the end of the night, teenagers Kadono and Parrot had narrowly missed landing the trick backward -- Parrot spinning frontside, Kadono trying it backside.
It is OK if the words "switch backside triple cork 1620" sound like a foreign language to you -- and if their visual representation seems impossible to comprehend. The takeaway is this: In roughly 50 minutes of riding, the X Games Big Air competition spins its sport forward an entire year. Once tricks have been introduced in Aspen, the rest of the snowboard world spends the next 12 months learning them, using the X Games footage as a template.
On Friday night, 10 innovators from seven countries mingled at the top of the scaffolding tower that would catapult snowboarding into its newest realm of possibility. Breaths became vapor clouds in the 18-degree air. There was little talking, save for attempts at keeping the mood light ahead of the impending throwdown. Big Air, after all, is the kind of event that makes mothers and agents hold their breath -- especially two weeks before slopestyle's Olympic debut.
Icelandic visionary Halldor Helgason pulled a banana out of his jacket and told American Sage Kotsenburg he would take a bite while upside down in the air. Then he dropped in for his final practice run and made good on his promise.
"Suuuuch a legend," Kotsenburg said, grinning.
Two years ago, competition triple corks were almost unheard of. Last year, they were reserved for the Big Air final. This year, riders debuted them in practice, then unleashed a barrage in the qualification heats.
To get a sense of how much jumping talent there is in the world of big air, consider that Friday's gold and silver medalists, Parrot, 19, and Kadono, 17, were not invited to compete last year. (Kadono, however, did land a backside triple cork 1620 during practice as an alternate.)
Despite missing arguably the two best jumpers in the world -- three-time X Games Big Air champion Torstein Horgmo, who failed to advance out of his heat, and Olympic slopestyle favorite Mark McMorris, who withdrew to save his body for the Sochi Winter Games -- Friday's final turned into the inevitable evolutionary display. (McMorris will compete in Snowboard Slopestyle at X Games Aspen 2014.)
Most riders admit they have no idea what they will end up doing come contest time. When Parrot landed a Cab (switch frontside) triple cork 1440 -- the same trick McMorris used to score silver last year behind Horgmo's switch backside triple cork 1440 -- the other riders and coaches at the top of the tower screamed. Norwegian Ståle Sandbech was on his way up the stairs at the time. "What'd he do?" Sandbech asked.
When someone told him, Sandbech threw up his arms and exclaimed, "What is up with the world, man?"
Friday's final also exposed American snowboarding's kryptonite: While halfpipe belongs to the Yankees, the best jumpers in the world reside elsewhere. No U.S. man advanced to the six-man final, which featured riders from Belgium, Norway, Japan, Sweden and Canada. This is ironically due to the fact that the best 22-foot halfpipes are located in America. "Jumps are the only thing we can focus on on the other side of the Atlantic," said Swedish slopestyle coach Joakim Hammar, who supported 19-year-old Sven Thorgren at the top of the tower Friday night.
Winning the X Games Big Air competition elevates a snowboarder to a new dimension of innovator (and adds thousands of Instagram followers, everyone made sure to point out in the tower). Past winners include the likes of Horgmo, Helgason, McMorris and Travis Rice.
Parrot was disappointed he failed to land the Cab triple cork 1620 in the final despite taking home his first X Games gold medal. But his three failed attempts left him hope for the future -- and began a process that could climax in Sochi, Russia.
"If the jumps are big enough at the Olympics, it's going to happen there," he said. And as with so many spin-it-forward moments in snowboarding history, it will have started at the top of the scaffolding tower in Aspen.