The Rise of the Parks
Friday, April 14, 2017
Written by John Bleh
How creativity and community came to define the terrain parks at Sugarbush.
When I was in college at the University of Vermont (Class of 2011), most of the people I knew skied at Stowe; Sugarbush wasn’t really on my radar screen. You see, terrain park riders—the keystone species in the college ski and ride environment—had a huge influence on other college kids. Even though I wasn’t much of a park guy (barely landing 360s was about as far as I went), I tended to go where the masses went. In my college days, that wasn’t Sugarbush.
Things have changed. These days, the Sugarbush terrain parks are alive with college kids, as well as families escorting their kids down the trail. Cheers echo from the chairlift as skiers and riders perform cool tricks, flocks of riders approach sets of features in unison, and kids hang out on the bleachers at the base of the trail, to the steady beat of music.
In the years following my graduation, Sugarbush PARKS emerged from the woodwork, drawing a large share of the Vermont college market. TransWorld Snowboarding magazine named it a Top 5 East Coast Park in 2012, knocking out the larger and better resourced Killington. Why? What had changed?
To understand, here’s a little historical context. When freestyle started getting big in the 1990s, there weren’t a lot of eastern resorts on the bandwagon. But Sugarbush had Gondolier (at Lincoln Peak), one of the first dedicated freestyle terrain parks. Big local names like Seth Miller, Seth Neary, and Jesse and Lucas Huffman started flocking to the resort. The combination of the dedicated freestyle park, Sugarbush’s intense, big-mountain terrain, and the exploits of local pros helped put Sugarbush at the forefront of the freestyle scene.
But after the American Skiing Company purchased the resort in the mid-’90s, they hired an outside group to build a snowboard-only terrain park on Snowball (also at Lincoln Peak). Over the next few years—due mainly to lack of care and promotion—the freestyle scene at the mountain declined.
Things started turning around a few years after Win Smith and Summit Ventures purchased the resort. The new owners hired Tony Chiuchiolo as manager of the resort’s terrain parks, someone who had grown up shredding the Sugarbush park terrain and had a good idea of what freestyle skiers and riders were looking for. Crucially, he was also willing to listen to their feedback, and he worked to provide the types of features and atmosphere they wanted, not what he thought they wanted. Under his leadership Sugarbush became known for having unique features and approaching park layouts in an unusual way. And it was all being done in-house.
Chiuchiolo helped to create a sense of community for the riders, and focused particularly on attracting college students, leading Sugarbush’s college marketing efforts and traveling to college events to let students know about the mountain. “I figured out which skiers and riders were the leaders at these schools and recruited them to help get people to us,” Chiuchiolo told me last spring. “It all came down to providing these kids with a place to come together.” He also managed to bring the UVM Snowboard Team over to Sugarbush from Stowe, and other college students followed.
Chiuchiolo built a dedicated park posse around him—skiers and riders who were involved in the park culture, knew what he had done, and would know how to continue it even after he was gone. (He left Sugarbush in 2014, but returned in 2016 as events manager.) Today, Sugarbush PARKS is managed by Trevor Borrelli, one of the members of Chiuchiolo’s old core group. Borrelli, who lives in the Valley with his wife and their two dogs, didn’t grow up skiing or riding, though he did play competitive ice hockey and race BMX bikes. When he eventually tried snowboarding, he fell in love with the freedom and self-expression the sport allowed. As Sugarbush started to reemerge on the terrain park map, he made the move from the town of Stowe to the Mad River Valley.
Borrelli has been with Sugarbush PARKS for seven years, and 2016–17 will be his second year as manager. His first year wasn’t easy: in one of its worst snowfall seasons, Sugarbush wasn’t able to open the Riemergasse Park (now the main terrain park area) until January. (While January was late for Sugarbush, most parks in the East opened later, and with fewer features.) Even after the opening, continuous freeze/thaw cycles made it tough to maintain the terrain and build new features. But the Sugarbush PARKS crew, a group of about fifteen staffers, persevered: both of their Mt. Ellen terrain parks, Riemergasse and Sugar Run, were open almost all year, with smaller parks at Lincoln Peak open in the early and late season.
For Borrelli and his crew, the day starts early. They gather at the “park shack,” a small building at the base of Riemergasse, to boot up and review the terrain park grooming plan. Everyone gets out on the hill to fix any hazards from the prior day before heading to the base lodge for a hearty breakfast. From there the crew is split into shifts raking out features, which they typically do a couple times a day. Each night, Borrelli’s grooming team resurfaces the parks. In the early building stages, workweeks usually hover around 80 to 100 hours.
At any one time the parks typically have around sixty features, and Borrelli and his team don’t let things grow stale—about ten new features rotate in during a season. Along with building new features, the crew recycles outdated rails and boxes, chopping them up, reconfiguring them into another creation, or scrapping them for raw materials.
This all happens at the base of Riemergasse, in what the Sugarbush PARKS crew refers to as the “chop shop”: their in-house welding bay, fully outfitted with an inventory of steel, plywood, and tools. The idea stage is first, where they think through their current fleet of features and determine what’s missing or where industry trends are moving. Ideas then move to paper and the CAD program Google SketchUp to determine how much of each material will be required, which angles to cut, and so forth. Rich Picarelli, another core crew member and the lead fabricator (with a degree in product design/development and technology studies from Keene State), then meticulously levels and squares each piece during the welding process. Picarelli has the second-longest tenure on staff, following Borrelli, and came to Sugarbush from Granite Gorge in New Hampshire. It was there, during college, that he started working at terrain parks and mastering his fabrication skills.
The first time I saw Riemergasse, I thought how similar it felt to a skate park. It’s true—a lot of the inspiration at Sugarbush comes from urban settings. One of the park’s staples is its plaza-style sets, with features combined to emulate cityscapes. Borrelli told me that whenever he’s in a city, he can’t turn his brain off: he’s constantly looking around, finding ideas in the architecture. “There’s a lot you can pull out of urban settings,” he said. “Skateboarders take advantage of what city architecture has to offer—why can’t we do the same?”
Typically he’ll take a photo of an object, maybe a city railing or a staircase, and return to the crew and SketchUp to see if it’s possible to insert that rail, staircase, or other feature into the park. The inspiration has led to some crazy features, like the Catfish Rail, a forty-two-foot-long expanse of metal, or Wallenburg, a pyramid-shaped hit inspired by a feature in a Chicago park.
“Planning, planning, and planning,” Borrelli said. “I can’t stress enough that having a plan is the most important part of the job. We have a lot of different moving parts, and planning saves time and money, and helps keep everyone safe.” For example, when building most new features, the crew creates a list of materials that documents everything the piece could entail, right down to the nuts and bolts.
For each new feature, the crew also takes into account the easiest form of promotion: video. Features and lines are set with consideration for how a friend might film you. Thanks to that kind of planning, the park has an almost endless stream of video content coming out of it, both from sponsored park riders and the public, giving exposure to the skiers and riders who want it. One of the most popular edits is the Bush League video series, which features a mashup of park footage with different riders.
These videos stay fresh because you can approach a run through the park hundreds of different ways, thanks to the numerous rails, boxes, and other features scattered across the trail. While the park also has some big jumps, there’s not one specific linear run that most people take, unlike in a typical terrain park. This layout promotes conversations between riders on what type of line to take, as enthusiasts argue over the best order of operations.
Phototographs are another source of promotion. A lot of good photography comes out of the park, and is featured on Facebook, Instagram, and on freestyle-oriented websites like Newschoolers.com. Ashley Rosemeyer serves as the resident park photographer, in addition to her photography work at a Burlington studio and for Too Hard, an all-female snowboard squad.
Beyond the DIY working style of the park crew, “what really separates our park from others is the community,” Borrelli told me, echoing Chiuchiolo. “Having a group of guys and girls passionate about being here is key, but that doesn’t mean it’s an exclusive club. It’s just as important to make first-timers to the park feel welcome.” That’s not always the attitude when it comes to terrain parks.
Moving the park to the Riemergasse trail at Mt. Ellen a few years ago was integral to the park’s community feel. The Sunny Double, one of Sugarbush’s only remaining original chairs (the Village Double is the other), runs right up the trail, providing an opportunity for spectating, cheering, filming, and good-natured ribbing. Riemergasse and the beginner-oriented Sugar Run Park on the adjacent trail make up their own neighborhood at Mt. Ellen. Park riders can hang out all day and lap features without having to leave the Sunny Double area.
Last spring, I spent the day hanging around the park during the SideSurfers Banked Slalom competition, a snowboard-only event complete with race gates, banked turns, and fun jumps. About two minutes into my visit, while standing near the finish line, I began to sense what Borrelli was talking about. Conversations between riders on the lift and on the ground were constant: chatter about the course, call-outs to each other, and enthusiastic cheers for riders as they competed. Most surprising to me was the age range of the competitors—not just teens and millennials, but riders as young as six and as old as fifty.
Sugarbush parks do not have the biggest jumps, the largest budget, or the greatest expanse of terrain. What they do have is something a lot of other parks lack: heart and creativity. An extremely loyal and passionate crew provides the foundation for a landscape where almost any feature is possible, given the imagination. It took years to pull this together, but creating a welcoming environment, amid a constantly evolving landscape, has brought many skiers and riders to Sugarbush, both on the park terrain and across the resort. This time, thanks to the park crew’s continuous desire to push the envelope, that influx doesn’t seem in any danger of slowing down.
Former PARKS manager Tony Chiucholo (center) and two of his staff dressed up for a PARKS event
PARKS features plaza-style sets designed to emulate cityscapes.
The SideSurfers Banked Slalom event