A Beginner Sessions in Loon’s Progression Park
by Mitch Kaplan
"Assume the position!" Morgan commanded.
The gorilla position, that is - hunkered low over your skis, feet set wide, arms wide, weight balanced forward.
"This," he said, "is the basic stance for approaching most terrain park features."
I was skiing Loon Mountain’s Burton Progression Park with Morgan Alford, freeride team coach and park skills instructor. I was receiving a crash-course version of Loon Snowsports School’s Progression Camp, a full-day terrain park clinic offered to skiers and snowboarders on weekends. "Parks aren’t just for snowboarders anymore," Morgan said. "The snowboarder-to-skier ratio in our parks is about fifty-fifty."
Many resorts build small terrain parks. But, only New Hampshire’s Loon and California’s Northstar-at-Tahoe offer "Progression Parks" specifically designed for introductory learning. "We needed a product for novice park users," Luke Shelley, Loon’s snowsports and special teams coordinator, told me. "This is the first time there’s been a unified park concept created with a manufacturer and the snowsports school."
Terrain parks, according to Alford, began some years ago as a grass roots movement. Of course, by now the park phenomenon has been completely absorbed into the snowsport culture. But, as parks have grown in number - and, more importantly - in size, a need has arisen. Sliders need a place to start.
"The idea is that there is now a set of skills to be taught, as well as a set of safety codes and procedures to be learned," Alford explained during a gondola ride. The Progression Park, and the Freestyle Progression Camps, supply just that.
Resort Program Manager for Burton Snowboards, Shaun Cattanach, added to the explanation. "If you get new people in the terrain park without the skills and knowledge of how to ride the park, you have a safety issue," he said. "This project dovetails the national ‘Smart Style’ program with the proper equipment and learning environment, so park users can be safe and responsible. The park is branded by Burton, but it’s concept, layout and design aren’t snowboard specific."
The Progression Camp is offered by Loon’s snowsports school as full-day sessions on weekends. "They’re dynamic and you can expect changes on any given day," Luke Shelley said. "We mix ages - you might find a 12 year-old and a 27 year-old in a lesson together. The kids and adults tend to push each other, and the retention rate afterwards is very high."
The Progression Park
Alford took me on a brief all-hill tour of Loon’s terrain parks. It was a bit disconcerting - as we skied away from the lift, Morgan was skiing switch (backwards) faster than I could ski forwards. Nonetheless, we saw parks of all sizes, from mini-parks with a few, small, snow elements that stood along the sides of trails, to a snowskate park, to Loon's honkin' Loon Mountain Park, where several features stood well taller than I.
Loon’s Progression Park is gated; you can’t enter accidentally. Signs at each feature describe proper techniques for that element, allowing users unaccompanied by an instructor to practice the appropriate skills. To inspire sliders, four-color photos show pros performing the same moves on a large element.
The park’s set up discourages flow-through. Rather, it encourages users to "session" (execute, walk uphill and repeat) at each feature by presenting two, three-feature lines (one for sliding, the other for air), with each element isolated by safety fencing.
So, there I was, gorilla-positioned with Morgan, preparing to grind a funbox, (a.k.a box) - slide over it. A beginners’ box, it was set not above the ground, but embedded at snow level.
"How are your edges?" he asked. "You haven’t had them sharpened recently, have you?"
I never knew dull edges could be an advantage. Unlike most skiing, he pointed out, grinding boxes or rails requires riding a flat ski not set edges; and, impetus comes from the upper body and head, not from the legs, particularly for spins.
First, I’d take it straight on. Then, I’d grind it sideways, with skis perpendicular to the box.
Straight on was easy. But, sideways?
Morgan instructed: assume the position, jump on while turning ninety degrees, land with flat skis, weighted slightly on the front leg. Exit forwards or backwards - my choice. Backwards?
I tried. With my weight too far back, I tottered, nearly tumbling backwards. I sidestepped uphill and went gorilla anew. Better, but still not a perpendicular alignment. "One more time," I declared. More sidestepping. More gorilla. I got it!
How cool is that!?
But, more importantly, I suddenly understood why kids walk terrain parks. This "sessioning" was all about try, try again.
Next up for me: the spine. An elongated, triangular hillock of snow, the narrow crest of which runs downhill like, well, a spine. Alford utilizes the spine to teach mid-air spins and turns.
"I describe getting into the air in basketball terms," Alford explained, demonstrating. "It’s more like taking a foul shot - you move gracefully up and forward - than a jump shot where you’d jump high and straight up."
For we beginners, the idea was to hit the front side at a slight angle, spring into the air, tuck the knees while simultaneously turning 90 degrees, extend the legs and land going down the spine’s side as the impact was absorbed by bending the knees again.
Sounds a lot more complicated than it is. The trick is to trust yourself when you get into the air. I did. And I did my airtime beautifully.
On to the Pipe
It was time to try halfpipe. En route to medium-rated Northstar Park, we found ourselves riding the gondola with Loon’s freeriding coach and one of his team members, a young man who appeared to be about ten years old. The discussion centered on the big park, of which we could catch glimpses out the gondola window. The kid was preparing for a contest to be staged the next day, and the talk was all about turning a 540 off the park’s "first big jump." Much terminology peppered the conversation - all mumbo-jumbo to me - but the upshot was this: somehow I knew the kid was going to master this move.
After all, I now knew what sessioning was all about.
The minipipe wasn’t in great shape. It was raining, and the pipe was getting soft. No matter. Morgan reviewed the basic move: ride up the pipe wall, wait til you get as high as your momentum will carry you, then move up and forward into the air, tuck, turn land going down the wall.
I couldn’t get it. I simply wanted to jump too soon. And, between Morgan being obligated to a lesson appointment and the rain coming down harder, I wasn’t going to be able to session this thing. Next time.
Next morning, accompanied by my friend Lucky, I wandered back into the Progression Park. The rain had stopped. The place buzzed with business. A lesson was going on in the sliding elements. A half dozen kids were also practicing airs on their own.
"This is the idea," I explained to Lucky as we approached the beginner box. I described the technique. He tried it. I tried it. In a few minutes we were grinding like fools!
"Now," I said as we skied to the first jump," you want to approach this like a foul shot, not a jump shot..."
Loon’s Progression Park has proven extremely popular, and Shaun Cattanach expects the concept to spread, albeit gradually, to perhaps a half-dozen resorts next year. "We anticipate controlled growth. Resorts must be dedicated to doing it properly and willing to dedicate the necessary resources. We’ll expand slowly," he said, adding, "We want to make sure that the smile factor stays high."
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...... Mitch Kaplan
is the author of The Unofficial Guide to the Mid-Atlantic with Kids, The Cheapskate’s Guide to Myrtle Beach and The Golf Book of Lists. He is a contributor to The Unofficial Guide to New England & New York with Kids and to the annual guide Ski America & Canada.