The little park that could
The mandate that all of today's aspiring snowboard park superstars learn how to throw triple corks on command requires the construction of kickers with huge airport-scale run-ins and equally capacious landings.
Catering to that demand, your average contemporary snowboard park can take up half a mountainside in length, consume a lion's share of a resort's snowmaking and grooming capacity, and intimidate all but the top-talented one percent of the ski and snowboarding population.
But this past season Big Park at Sugarbush, Mount Ellen in Vermont took things in the other direction.
At Big Park, riders might only have 400 feet of vertical drop to work with, but despite the park's somewhat ironic name, it commanded such a strong following that it was ranked in the Top Five East Coast Snowboard Parks by TransWorld Snowboarding magazine in 2012/13.
We decided to find out just what was going on there.
"We don't have huge resources, so we're forced to be creative -- and I think that's actually our strength," explains Sugarbush Park Programs Director Tony Chiuchiolo. "The trend towards slopestyle, with bigger space between features, is nice but we like the idea of multiple angles on features, so you can mix up your lines between the top and bottom of the park."
Chiuchiolo has a snowboarding pedigree, and vast experience working in small spaces. After growing up riding and competing on the east coast in the early days of snowboarding, he went on to take over the construction of the actual east coast parks themselves. Since 2008 he and a dedicated crew of park designers, groomers and fabricators have set about to reinvent the DIY freestyle roots of snowboarding at Sugarbush.
"[Snowboarding] was so new back in the early '90s that we were only given limited terrain to work with," says Chiuchiolo. "We tried to stuff as much as we could into that little area -- garbage pails, picnic tables -- and make the most of what we had. We brought that philosophy into the park building at Sugarbush. We wanted to put a lot into a small space."
Last winter the park was crammed full of 25 rail features plus a triple jump line. From closeout rails and multiple re-direction kinks to tabletops with landings groomed onto their sides, almost every setup could be hit from several different directions.
"It's like a skatepark," explains Sugarbush Park rider and South Burlington native Ralph Kucharek of the park's design. "You can pick a line, or ten lines! The flow is just epic really."
Riders who frequent the park are lured in by the free-flow to features, and the ability to cycle the park again and again on what is effectively a private lift. But keeping a park like this tuned up is no easy task, especially on the east coast, where temperature fluctuations can turn a nice groomed takeoff into an ice rink overnight.
"As far as Northern Vermont goes, they are the first park crew to put their whole effort into it," says Kucharek. "[No matter how bad] the snow was, you'd come here and expect it to be bullet proof -- but then you'd see one of the boys farming snow out of the woods to put on the lip. There's just a lot more care."
Because of this care, Chiuchiolo and his staff -- including groomer Justin "Juice" Lapchak, park designer Tervor Borrelli, and fabricator Richie Picarelli -- have built a following in a truly grassroots way. They worked directly with the locals, designed an experience that doesn't follow the typical park-construction formula, and stuck to their guns.
"We don't try to build on trends," says Chiuchiolo. "We try to build on what our team riders and people that ride our park everyday like -- and the voting poll is a testament to our goal and what we're trying to achieve."
As to the TransWorld award, "At first I thought it was a joke," says Chiuchiolo, "We don't even have a halfpipe! Of course [we were] honored to be considered one of the top five parks with the other east coast giants -- it's a huge achievement for my team who dedicated a lot of time and blood to put out a good product."
It was a big recognition for a small park, but the praise is not going to go to the crew's head.
"People should know that the accolade wasn't just anomaly, and that we'll be consistent," says Chiuchiolo, of what Vermont riders can expect next year. "We are dedicated to making the park as fun as possible and that's all that maters."