The entrance to the High Roller terrain park at Heavenly Lake Tahoe is posted with distinctly ominous warnings. Helmets are recommended. "Inverted maneuvers" are not.
The long list of safety precautions boils down to this: Enter at your own risk, dude.
A posse of teenage boys in dark helmets, mirrored goggles, long jackets and baggy pants swarms through the bright orange gate. Some are gliding on snowboards, some on a new style of skis called twin-tips, rounded and flared at both ends. They pause to size up the obstacles: a series of man-made snow hills to the right and, to the left, an installation consisting of long, flat-topped metal boxes on either side of what looks like a metal handrail about 4 feet off the ground.
Nudging and guffawing the way teenage boys do, they drop into the course one by one, flying over the jumps or jumping atop the boxes to slide for a split second before popping back off onto the snow.
Welcome to the adrenaline-fueled world of the terrain park.
"A lot of the new generation coming up, this is all they do," Heavenly-based freeski champion Brent Abrams, 18, says of the "park rats" who spend their days catching air. "People are choosing where they want to go not by how big the mountain is, how many lifts or runs, but by the reputation of its parks."
For decades, ski areas have marked their runs with universal symbols -- green circles, blue squares, black diamonds -- designating the relative difficulty of the slopes. Only recently has a new symbol cropped up on the trail maps: the orange oval, signifying the presence of jibs, jumps, half-pipes and other features of designated "free-style" terrain.
Inspired by urban skateboardparks, BMX bike racing, theX Games, the last Winter Olympicsand increasing televisionexposure, terrain parks haverevitalized mountain resorts asbaby boomers have increasinglyopted for activities that arekinder on the knees. More than500 resorts around the nation,including 13 of the 15 aroundLake Tahoe, have them.
"Terrain parks originally werecreated for purposes of segregation- we felt we needed to keepsnowboarders separate to notconflict with skiers," says JohnRice, general manager of theSierra-at-Tahoe resort on Highway50. "Then integration becamethe direction we headedtoward. Part of that was generatedby skiers wanting to spendtime in the parks, too."
The recent advent of twin-tipskis, which facilitate "switch,"or backward landings, has lureda broader audience.
Both terrain park users andresort managers face a learningcurve as demand grows for evermore sophisticated (and potentiallydangerous) features.
The solution at many resortshas been to build multiple terrainparks geared to riders ofdifferent ability, from bunnyslopebeginners who slide onrails just a few inches aboveground to cutting-edge pros suchas Abrams, who launch off hillsizejumps.
A new, evolving culture
Terrain parks have sparked a new mountain culture and a new vocabulary. Members of the freestyle generation don't ski or snowboard, they "ride," whatever the conveyance. They huck, shred, sash, rip, butter and throw down on hips, whales, spines, rails, boxes, tabletops, half-pipes, quarter-pipes, wall rides and other installations.
Small resorts as well as heavyweights such as Heavenly and Squaw Valley USA have benefited from the park-and-pipe revolution. Tahoe's Diamond Peak, for example, will open a "superpark" this season. Mt. Rose has three designated freestyle areas; Homewood has one; Sierra-at-Tahoe, five. Even tiny Soda Springs, catering almost exclusively to young families, has its Kids X terrain park designed for beginners.
"For mountains that aren't blessed with a lot of vertical or great natural terrain, parks and pipes are one thing we can go out and change to add more challenge and excitement," says Eric Rosenwald, a renowned terrain park designer and former professional snowboarder. He was hired to manage freestyle terrain at Alpine Meadows and Boreal Mountain Resort.
Alpine was among a handful of resorts around the nation to resist snowboards when they carved onto the scene in the late 1980s. The resort finally opened its slopes to them in 1996. The smaller Boreal along Interstate 80 moved early to establish itself as a mountain primarily for snowboarders and now boasts seven terrain parks, including one for night riding.
"If you want to have a well-rounded offering (for) your customers, you have to have pipe and park," said Rosenwald. "If you want to differentiate yourself from your competitors, and if you put extra effort and thought into it, it can really start pulling kids to your mountain."
While snowboarders now account for about 35 percent of business at resorts nationwide, most report that terrain park use is split about 50-50 between skiers and snowboarders.
"Snowboarding has a faster learning curve, and that's what a lot of people want, especially the younger generation," says Abrams, a former alpine racer who switched to freestyle in part because "I didn't want to wear spandex."
"There's a coolness that comes with snowboarding - or they think it's a coolness," he says. "But a lot of snowboarders are slipping on a pair of twin-tips these days and finding out they can do more. Park and pipe and twin-tips have made it cool for teenagers to ski again."
Families shred together
It isn't all guys at the terrain park, Rosenwald says: "A lot of girls are getting really good at park and are earning a lot of respect from the typical shredder dude."
With the growth of terrain parks has come development of industrywide safety initiatives and teaching methods, such as the Burton Learn to Ride system for snowboarders employed at Heavenly and other resorts.
Instruction in free-ski techniques is evolving, too. Jacqueline Rockman, 43, a level III (advanced) instructor at Heavenly, is one of only a handful of certified female park-and-pipe ski coaches at Tahoe.
"Five years ago we didn't teach in the parks at all," she says. "All we had was rollers and jumps, no rails or slides or funboxes. Now an amazing amount of acreage is devoted to park and pipe. And it doesn't matter what age you are -- if you have a desire to go in, every area has a progression."
Sierra-at-Tahoe's Rice, who helped pioneer the terrain park movement in Southern California in the late 1980s, spots another trend: "What we're seeing is kids coming through with their parents," he says. "Kids like 'whoop-de-doos'; they don't want a perfectly groomed corduroy slope. So Mom and Dad are in there, cheering from the sidelines."
Sierra's sister resort, Northstar-at-Tahoe, is capitalizing on that demographic by billing its new beginner area, The Straits, as a family terrain park.
None of this comes cheap.
"A lot of resorts are playing catch-up as the market shifts to resorts with more youth energy," said Rice, noting that it takes a commitment from the resort: special equipment, not to mention the human resources to build and maintain it.
Park users are growing more sophisticated and developing an array of snow-riding styles. One of them, "freestyle" is not bound by any set rules, so there are plenty of "new school" and "old school" interpretations.
Most industry watchers believe the terrain park trend is still heating up, not slowing down.
"The average park-and-pipe enthusiast is very savvy to what's going on, what's a cool place to ride, who's got the best bumps, who's got the best rails," Rosenwald says. "These kids don't have a lot of money, but they'll spend every penny they've got to go ride in a park, and they want to make it count."
Riding on the Web
For more information on terrain parks and the etiquette and safety initiatives surrounding them, check the Web sites of these organizations.
* National Ski Areas Association, www.freestyleterrain.org
* Professional Ski Instructors Association, www.psia.org
* Lids on Kids, www.lidsonkids.org