Super terrain |

Super terrain

William Ferchland/Tahoe TribuneClockwise from top: the 400 foot long superpipe is accessible by foot after a short ride on the gondola. Mike Rencz, left, from Whistler, Canada, and Joe Bak wait for friends after a trip down the pipe. Snowboarders can get air at the pipe, but so can skiers.

TRUCKEE — Joe Bak talked like he knew a lot about pipes.

“This pipe’s kicking,” he said. “This thing is big and about 98 percent perfect. There’s a couple kinks on the wall. It’s got good vert, good patches and it’s long. It’s the best pipe in Tahoe.”

Bak spoke after he finished one of his countless runs down Northstar-at-Tahoe Ski Resort’s 400 foot long, 17 foot high superpipe designed by Chris “Gunny” Gunnarson, a well-known terrain park designer and president and founder of Snow Park Technologies.

Bak, 30, from Tahoe City, knew of Gunnarson and was using his Northstar pass for the first time Tuesday.

“I’m stoked I got a pass,” Bak said. “I got a pass here because I heard Gunnarson took over. I checked the boxes and rails online and got a pass. They’re really catering to snowboarders.”

Gunnarson and fellow park designer Josh Chauvet run Snow Park Technologies in Big Bear. Each have 13 years experience in snowboarding and seven years experience handling snowcats.

Gunnarson has helped design numerous parks, including those for the ESPN Winter X Games, MTV’s 1999 Snowed In event and Billabong’s Killer Camp in Austria.

This year Gunnarson, 29, was hired as Booth Creeks’ director of youth market development. Booth Creek is the owner of various ski resorts in Northern California, including Northstar and Sierra-at-Tahoe Snowsport Resort.

Sierra-at-Tahoe also has a 17 foot high superpipe designed by Gunnarson, as well as a snow skate park and 15 new rails. The South Shore resort was ranked in Transworld Snowboarding’s 2002 Park and Pipe Survey as one of the top-10 halfpipes in North America.

Gunnarson used his cell phone while in Seattle to talk about Northstar’s superpipe. Cooperation and a committed team are the primary factors in building a successful park besides the regular extras such as location, terrain, grade and snow. In addition to the usual ingredients, the pipe needs to be made correctly the first time, he said.

“That pipe at Northstar has the best underlying dirt foundation,” he said. “They already have existing pitch and because the walls are already built up you only have to use 60 percent of the snow.”

The constantly traveling Gunnarson said there are plans for Booth Creek resort parks in the future, but has to keep them secret.

His work for Northstar resulted in almost a milelong terrain park full of half-circle rails, metal boxes and jumps leading to the superpipe. The Vista Express chairlift practically runs underneath the park and users of the chair can hear a park sound system banging out jams from artists such as Digital Underground, Janet Jackson and Weezer.

Northstar also received accolades from Skiing magazine which included the resort on a list of 10 top park picks.

Andy Spotts, from Tahoe Donner, got a pass to Northstar after the new park was born this year.

“It’s big, pretty long and has good grade so you don’t lose speed (if you fall),” he said. “I’m not much of a pipe rider. I just hit jumps but I can’t complain. It’s got a little bit of everything.”

Toby Baird, Northstar’s communications director, said the payoffs have been noticeable. Film and photography crews have been showing up by the handfuls everyday to shoot pipe riders. On Tuesday, a photographer for a clothing company was shooting for a catalog.

“I’d say we’re targeting the youth market more than a boarder compared to a skier,” Baird said.

Some riders would take the Vista Express lift to take advantage of the full park, but others, such as Scott Ross, would complete a pipe run and walk back up. His snowboard was slung behind him.

Ross, coach of the snowboard team at Northstar, was using his time off to catch big air off the superpipe’s two lips. He admitted the pipe was steeper than he’s used to but continued to perfect his park riding.

“I’ve never ridden a better pipe personally, especially this early in the season,” he said after removing a small ear piece attached to a mini-disc player. “I still don’t like the walls having grooves in them. I don’t think they cut it up last night.”

Andrew Miller, head of freestyle operations at Northstar, said the resort tries to maintain the park every night depending on the health of their snowcats and a specialized machine that cuts the superpipe to maintain its U-shape.

Miller has been designing Northstar’s park for about five years. He said the addition of Gunnarson fulfilled his wish list for the park, including more rails, boxes and putting superpipe on Lower Drop Off, which receives less sun and would keep the shape of the pipe longer.

Gunnarson doubled Miller’s snowcat hours to 32 for cutting the park and brought back three highly-skilled groomers in Chris Tracy, Andy Mitchell and Lopaka Matthews. Snowcats groom the park starting when the resort closes at 4 p.m. until 8 a.m.

Late in the afternoon on Tuesday, a flock of boarders, primarily male, sat above it like seagulls on an ocean cliff. Infrequently skiers would drop in, also male. But Dawn Cardinale, 26, was in the pipe with her telemark skis.

Cardinale, who just moved to Tahoe from Utah, was trying to get the hang of the pipe and thought it was getting faster as the day wore on. She said it was “awesome.”

Sophie Karaclanis walked up the side of the pipe for another run. The 18-year-old snowboarder from Incline Village liked the pipe and even enjoyed the jaunt up, saying it was good exercise. She also seemed to know her pipes, believing Northstar’s is the best this year but added Sierra-at-Tahoe had a comparable one a couple years back.

“Usually they’ll make it and won’t maintain it,” Karaclanis said. “It’s in a good location, you can get to it easily, it’s long and it’s hard.”

The Double Whammy pass for Sierra-at-Tahoe and Northstar are still available. A restricted, non-holiday pass costs $479, while one for all days, including holidays, runs for $679. Other passes for young adults (13-22) and children (5-12) are available. Passes can be bought online, by phone, or by visiting the resort.

— Contact William Ferchland at

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