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OUTDOORS PETE THOMAS

Pipe Dream

It takes verve and nerve to test your skills against Mammoth's Super-Duper Pipe

January 31, 2003|PETE THOMAS

MAMMOTH LAKES — The swath in the snow looks as though it were carved by a giant meteor that landed on a down slope and skidded 600 feet before stopping about 100 yards from the main lodge at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.

So deep is the rut that it almost qualifies as a canyon. Just a glimpse of the elongated U, from either the lodge or the chair-lift that passes almost directly overhead, gives snowboarders butterflies.

"I haven't been this scared since they opened the original superpipe," said Chris Bradbury, 19, of Huntington Beach, staring up at a beast he hopes to someday tame.

"Gnarly, that's all I've got to say," added Jacob Freeze, 25, of San Clemente.

Gnarly indeed.

The sprawling resort atop this Eastern Sierra town recently made a statement to all other resorts when it opened what it calls the Super-Duper Pipe. Billed as the largest superpipe in North America, the Super-Duper Pipe is 600 feet long, has 22-foot walls and is capable, terrain park manager Oren Tanzer says, of launching top riders 10 or 12 feet above the lip and as high as 35 feet off the pipe's hard bottom.

"It's just another sign of Mammoth's commitment to providing the most innovative new terrain for our loyal skiers and riders," said Kellie Hines, a resort spokeswoman.

Translation: Mammoth, whose terrain parks were already rated at or near the top by ski and snowboard publications, intends to stay there.

To build the Super-Duper Pipe, Mammoth bought an alien-looking piece of machinery called the Zaugg Pipe Monster, which attaches to a snow-cat and is controlled via joystick from inside the cab.

The Pipe Monster can cut, shape and even maintain the smoothest and largest of pipes in a fraction of the time it takes traditional pipe-building tools. Fewer than two dozen resorts in North America have one.

"But demand is increasing every year," said Paul Leck, who distributes the Swiss-made machine. "I think the standard will be set at around 18 1/2 feet. But the pro riders and even the general riders will dictate where we go with size [on future models]. If they want more, then we'll go more."

Mammoth wanted more. It bought an extension accessory that gives its Pipe Monster the ability to attain the maximum 22 feet.

Too high?

On a recent sunny, almost breathless morning at Mammoth, one week after the opening of the Super-Duper Pipe, it seemed so.

The bigger pipe, making the superpipe next to it look puny and simple, loomed ominously in the shadows before dozens of terrain park riders taking their first rides up the mountain.

Though a few wandered by the bigger pipe, some even giving it a half-hearted try, most stuck with the smaller pipe, which was out of the shadows and softening under the rising sun.

By mid-morning, though, the shadows began melting away and the glistening walls of the Super-Duper Pipe beckoned snowboarders of all levels.

"It's a little intimidating at first because you really have to charge the walls to get enough speed to get beyond the lip," said Molly Aguirre, 18, a pro rider from Mammoth. "But I like it. It's definitely where snowboarding is going."

Pete del Giudice, 54, who coached the U.S. snowboarding team's halfpipe specialists during last winter's Olympics, agreed.

Asked if Mammoth were setting a dangerous precedent, he said the bigger pipe is actually safer than the smaller pipe in at least one respect: It has a much larger curved transition area between the flat bottom and the sheer "vert" section of wall leading to the top.

"Since the pipe is so big and there is such a large transition area, even if you drift out over the pipe [in the air] you have this large sloped area to land on," Del Giudice said. "But like anything, it's going to take the general public some time to get used to it. That's why my son and I are here, to check it out."

Dustin del Giudice, 28, was among the few early riders able to soar high above the walls. After a few runs he likened the Super-Duper Pipe to a wickedly hollow and notoriously dangerous Tahitian surfing break called Teahupoo.

"When you first look at this, it looks a lot like that crazy wave," he said. "If I was to think like a surfer, then this would be my Teahupoo. And just like Teahupoo, there are guys who will kill it and guys that get hurt."

His father added, "Just like on a big-surf day, there is always one rider who has it together and charges it. Once other people see that, they follow suit. It's the same thing here."

With that, the Del Giudices dropped in and went flying off the walls, with those behind them following suit.

*

After some debate, last weekend's halfpipe portion of the Built Ford Tough Championships of Snowboarding was switched from the superpipe to the Super-Duper Pipe. Mammoth Lakes resident Tommy Czeschin took advantage of the change and edged Olympic gold medalist Ross Powers, largely by pulling off a front-side 900 revolution and back-to-back 720s on his third run.

Eddie Wall, also from Mammoth, won the slopestyle competition.

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