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Jump Into Winter

Ski jumps are a high tech industry


who knows what lurks in the dreams of Ryan Neptune? The itinerant half-pipe and terrain designer may very well dream of slope angles, snow quality and gleaming aluminum rakes.

But for now, Neptune doesn't get to dream much. He's too hosed by travel.

"The winters just keep getting longer and longer," Neptune says.

He's not a climatologist. He's just the hardest-working man in snow business.

Neptune, 32, is one of the most sought-after designers and builders of half-pipes, snow terrain parks and mega-jumps. Though his headquarters are in Boise, he's rarely here.

"I'm gone from now until March 24," Neptune says.

He is the industry leader in an industry he and some friends practically invented: the business of creating, building and maintaining terrain parks, those man-made reefs and bowls of snow that now exist in almost every American ski area.

Neptune, and others like him, obsess about these things, for good reason. More and more, visitors to ski areas are on snowboards. And they're not getting any older. A 2006 study by the National Ski Areas Association found that the proportion of children under 18 years of age is on the rise. The average age of skiers has dropped to 35 years old.

Younger skiers and snowboarders don't always come to the ski hill to make turns on groomed slopes, nor do they necessarily aim for deep powder. What attracts--and keeps--younger snow sports nuts on a hill are man-made jumps, bumps and ramps--the sort of thing that Neptune builds all over the world.

In short, the thing that lurks in the hearts of America's young skiers is air. Lots of it. No matter what the conditions might be like on the rest of a ski area, many snowboarders and skiers want only to go to the terrain park to defy gravity.

"If there's like 12 inches of snow on the ground, the kids are saying, 'When can we get into the terrain park?'" says Corey McDonald, the director of mountain events for Bogus Basin Ski Resort. "I'm like, 'Are you crazy?'"

But in the past few years, smaller ski resorts like Bogus have found that having a terrain park can be a godsend when poor snow conditions keep skiers away.

"It can be an icy day at the mountain, but if you have a groomed snow park, you're golden," McDonald says. "That's kind of a savior to these little resorts."

Enter Neptune and others like him. McDonald, who knew Neptune growing up in Boise, says more people are taking their passion for jumping up and over snow into an obsession with building jumps.

So is born a fascination with the way snow can be piled, shoved, blown and raked into a perfect swoop. Builders seek to create the sort of thing that sends a skier or snowboarder aloft.

To do that, you need speed. To get speed, you need a groomed jump. To have a groomed jump, you need an assortment of rakes, shovels and a snowcat, preferably one operated by an experienced driver.

McDonald, 31, has worked in several ski areas, learning how to drive a snowcat and how to move snow. At Bogus, he is more of a director, working with a snowcat driver. Sometimes they sit together in the cab of the snowcat, deciding where to move the white stuff.

"With a good cat driver, you don't need any shoveling," McDonald says. "A good cat driver can do the whole thing."

Almost every terrain park, Neptune says, is built using man-made snow. That takes away some of the uncertainly involved with the variety of snow types found all over the world.

"Close to 100 percent of the time, it's man-made snow," Neptune says. "The only difference is elevation. Elevation dries stuff out."

From Japan--Neptune was there earlier this month--to Oregon, he says, most of the man-made snow feels the same.

"Colorado is the only anomaly," Neptune says. "They're much much higher than other resort areas."

High-altitude air dries snow out, he says. While that creates the sort of snow conditions powder skiers crave, terrain park artists like their snow gloppy. It can be moved and sculpted easier.

"It's going to stack more efficiently, and quicker," he says.

The larger the terrain feature you want to build, of course, the more critical it is to have just the right snow, Neptune says.

Neptune's specialty is the Superpipe, a giant-sized cutout of the mountain, with perfectly pitched sidewalls that sometimes reach dozens of feet above the bottom of the pit. These deep, monstrously steep walls require more snow movement, and so the stakes get higher.

"You need to put that on a certain pitch," Neptune says. "That's difficult. You never go to a mountain and say, 'Wow, that's a perfectly flat mountain.' The difficult part for us is to go in and figure out where the high point is, and fill in from there."

To create that perfect world-class Superpipe, Neptune and his crews have to always be mindful of how slope angle--and the slightest miscalculation--can wreak havoc on their production.

"If you hit dirt, the event's over," he says. "Ultimately, that's when we're stuck. We have to find dirt, and make adjustments above it."

When Tamarack Ski resort went back in to build their half-pipe this summer, they made life easier for themselves, says Jessica Flynn, a spokeswoman for the resort. Using earth-moving equipment, she says, resort staff dug out the rough indent of a half-pipe so that when the snow flies, they'll be that much further ahead of the game. For the regular skier and snowboarder, their half-pipe is about 18 feet tall, she says. For competitions, they'll build 22-foot-high snow walls in their half-pipe.

For Neptune, this all started when he was a competitive snowboarder, winning snowboard competitions around the West. When he and a friend, Pat Malendoski, began swapping ideas for building jumps, it led to the partnership that is their two companies, Planet Snow Designs and Planet Snow Tools.

Nowadays, Malendoski and Neptune are traveling the world, running a business that is the end-all, be-all of terrain parks.

But in the end, Neptune says, he is a snowboarder who likes taking jumps, just like overeager kids everywhere. For him, the best part of the job is the testing of the jumps, he says. It may only be a few minutes, but it's a sublime moment.

"That's why we do it," he says. "Even if it's just four or five minutes, it's a jump not many people in the world get to hit. And I get to hit it first."