Editor’s note: Make it Missoula has partnered with the University of Montana’s Online News class, taught by Jule Banville, to create a new Citizen Journalism feature that’s all about local views and issues. We’re excited to provide these students with a platform so they can objectively explore and report about the topics they think reflect the lives and times of Missoula and its citizens.
By BILLIE LOEWEN
He was supposed to be the next big thing. He was supposed to put Missoula on the map with big-name ski and snowboard companies. Then, last summer, 14-year-old Tanner Olson died in a car accident, leaving the ski and snowboard community stunned.
As the first snow hits the mountains and the season’s first rail jam – a fundraiser this Friday benefiting Olson’s memorial — the freestylers in Missoula may soon have another reason to celebrate: an expanded terrain park at Montana Snowbowl.
Two weeks ago, Joe Dillon, a recent graduate of the University of Montana’s College of Technology, met with Snowbowl owner, Bradley Morris, and mountain manager, Pat McCay, to discuss expanding and opening to the public the resort’s Freestyle Team’s terrain park.
The execs, according to Dillon, are on board. In a phone call, Morris confirmed that’s the case.
Dillon’s familiar with the existing terrain at Snowbowl. For his high school senior project, he built the elements the Snowbowl Freestyle Team currently uses. In addition to what’s there now, Dillon said he and members of Missoula Zoo Crew plan to build three to six jumps, ranging from 10 to 40 feet, and set rails, tires, and boxes off High Roller, the tuck-through run connecting Snowbowl’s high chairlift, Lavelle, to the lower Grizzly lift.
The park, he said, could be open to the public as early as mid-December, although Morris cautioned it will really depend on when there’s enough snow.
For freestyle skiers, as Olson was, a terrain park at Snowbowl seemed like it would never happen. Gregg Janecky, executive director and founder of the Backwoods Project, spent the past three years writing proposals for Snowbowl to create and support a lasting park. Temporary obstacles were the only result.
“Snowbowl wasn’t ready to support a park,” Janecky said, “and the freestyle community support wasn’t strong enough. There is insurance to think about, and Snowbowl is stuck in its ways.”
According to Janecky, a pro dropped by his sponsors after moving to Missoula because it wasn’t on the freestyle map, the Missoula ski and snowboard scene hasn’t changed much from the ‘80s stigma: It’s still skiers vs. boarders. Old-school vs. new tricks.
As the dominant ski area, Snowbowl has been much more focused on serving traditional freestyle skiers carving through mogul-laden runs and hitting small, structured jumps rather than jibbing on rails and half-pipes and throwing huge, X-Games style jumps.
That’s not to say there weren’t freestyle events happening in town – they just weren’t at Snowbowl. The Backwoods Project hosted rail jams too big for Caras Park, moving them to Marshall Mountain for three-day events with more than 25 local bands. Still, without a major and permanent terrain park, Missoula wasn’t much but a blip in the Rockies’ freestyle scene.
Snowbowl’s move could change that.
But building a terrain park takes a tremendous amount of work. It requires snowmobiles and snowcats, a team of people dedicated to building and maintaining the park initially, and after every snowfall.
“I wanted to make sure the park would be maintained every day,” said Dillon. “I think we are figuring out ways to make that work.”
His primary concern, he said, is safety.
“If someone gets hurt this year, it is going to seriously deter Snowbowl from wanting a park in the future,” he said. “We don’t want to out-build ourselves.”
Nationally, new-school freestyle skiing events like slope-style, half-pipe, and big air started to grow in popularity in the late 1990s, a result of frustrations with the competitive nature of traditional mogul and aerial skiing. In 1997-1998, the same year as the first winter X-Games, Solomon became the first company to market twin-tip skis. The creation of twin-tip skis, or skis with turned-up ends at the front and back, made it easier to ski backward and allowed skiers to takeoff and land jumps with more variety.
This was the same year Missoula ski icon Eric Burgoust won gold in aerial skiing at the Olympics in Nagano, Japan. The influence of Burgoust would be monumental in the Missoula ski community for years to come, perhaps even stifling the wave of new-school freestyle that grew in other mountain towns.
In 2001, new-school freestyle skiing boomed again when Kalispell-born bad-boy skier, Tanner Hall, won gold at the winter X-Games. Ski films featuring Hall and other freeskiers set a high bar for what kinds of tricks were possible on skis. The freestyle market began to boom as skiers and snowboarders began to share an appreciation for each other.
Why Missoula’s Ready
Thomas Vincent grew up in Bozeman and didn’t want to be one of the “gapers” or tourist skiers, so he got into freestyle skiing. He describes the sport as a passion to try something new on the slopes alternative to traditional mogul skiing. A year ago, he co-founded the Zoo Crew, a group that, like Janecky’s Backwoods Project, has been working to support a freestyle community in Missoula.
“Lookout and Lost Trail both have terrain parks,” Dillon said. “Freestyle kids in Missoula are driving two hours just to ski on a park. There has been a need for a park in Missoula for a long time.”
In Montana, especially Missoula, freestyle skiing is behind the times. Blame the old stigma. Blame the old rippers dedicated to traditional backcountry powder versus the up-and-coming kids looking to build bigger and bigger jumps. Vincent blames the monopoly Snowbowl has had over the Missoula ski community.
“Snowbowl is the only ski resort in Missoula,” Vincent said. “They have dedicated riders who have been skiing there forever. That has made Snowbowl really closed-off to new ideas in the past.”
Ben Zeimet, owner and director of Hi-Line Films, watched the Missoula ski community change – or not change, for that matter – over the past 25 years.
His new documentary, “Why We Ride,” explores the history of ski bums in Montana. The film, released this month, is “mostly about backcountry powder skiers — not freestyle skiers at all, really,” Zeimet said. “In Montana, we’ve been behind because we have good snow and big mountains, so we ski the backcountry. But there is a new generation of kids coming up who don’t care about powder.”
The same kids who would rather spend all day hitting rails and jumps than seek powder are getting too good for the freestyle resources in Missoula.
“In Montana,” Vincent said, “there aren’t jumps big enough for kids to learn new tricks. The terrain park at Snowbowl for the freestyle team now is great for beginners, but we have kids ready to throw the biggest tricks around.”
Janecky spent the last three summers working as the trampoline director at High Cascade Snowboard Camp near Mt. Hood, Oregon. There, he developed a trampoline progression program for freestyle aerial training that gyms around the country are now using. During the winter months, he teaches the same classes at Mismo Gymnastics in Missoula.
Many of Tanner Olson’s friends have filled his classes. Spaces are available in beginner classes, but the intermediate and advanced classes are full. Regardless of limited resources, freestylers in Missoula continue to improve. Olson was the epitome.“Tanner’s first year skiing, he landed a 360,” Vincent said. “He had been skiing for three years, progressing faster than anyone I’ve ever skied with. He was throwing double backflips, cork 9’s, some of the most technical tricks around. He was annihilating other 14-year-olds and competing against kids seven years older than him. He was going to be the next [X-Games star] Tanner Hall.”
The 2014 Winter Games may seem ages away, but Janecky said they may be pivotal in gaining support for Missoula freestyle. For the first time, the 2014 games will offer medals for slope-style, big-air, and half-pipe. Likely, there will be another rise in demand for terrain parks and new-school freestyle skiing locations as a result.
In the meantime, the first rail jam of the season happens this Friday. The Ride for Tanner Rail Jam for skiers and boarders will be at Caras Park at 7 p.m. All proceeds will go to the Tanner Olson Memorial BMX Park and Lost Trail Mountain Slopestyle fund.
“Tanner’s death rumbled the whole ski community in Montana,” said Zoo Crew’s Vincent. “He inspired his friends to push in and ride on the same level. Everyone is trying to be the freestyler he could have been.”
This year, after years of work and waiting, the Missoula freestyle community could have a new place to practice.
Billie Loewen is a senior studying journalism at the University of Montana.