ASPEN — It's more than an engineering marvel, the two adjacent 22-foot-tall halfpipes that allow riders to flip between them.

The snowy monstrosity — built by Snow Park Technologies, hosted by Aspen Skiing Co. and fueled by Red Bull — promises to become snowboarding's warp drive this weekend in Aspen, pushing the sport into new dimensions.

The Red Bull Double Pipe contest at Buttermilk will see 18 riders — handpicked heavy hitters from both slopestyle and halfpipe, and including 10 Olympians — forging never-before trickery as they spin from pipe to pipe in a first-of-its-kind contest.

Consider the rider-driven display a chance for everyone else — spectators, park builders, resort operators and media — to catch up with the athletes who won't stop racing into the unknown.

Professional snowboarders Louie Vito, left, and Scotty Lago launch off the 4-foot spine of the Red Bull double pipe during practice at Buttermilk Mountain
Professional snowboarders Louie Vito, left, and Scotty Lago launch off the 4-foot spine of the Red Bull double pipe during practice at Buttermilk Mountain on Friday. For the first time, two 22-foot-tall halfpipes were constructed side by side for competition that allows riders to transfer back and forth between pipes. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

"An underlying mantra of our company is to constantly progress and evolve the sport, and that goes hand-in-hand with the athletes," said Snow Park Technologies founder Chris "Gunny" Gunnarson. Since 1999, Gunnarson has designed and sculpted the Winter X Games and Burton U.S. Open courses that highlight the athleticism of skiing and snowboarding's most daring riders.

Halfpipe riders work in inches. They fly 18 to 20 feet above the pipe and spin all variations of tricks before landing high on a 22-foot vertical wall. A couple of inches off and they splat the deck or plummet more than 40 feet.

Livelihoods — and lives, really — rely on precision. And spinning over a 4-foot bench to land in an adjacent pipe defies halfpipe-honed inclinations.


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"That's what's so fun about this. Everyone is trying to figure it out. It's never been done before, so there is no plan," said Steamboat Springs' Taylor Gold, who rode for the U.S. Snowboarding Team at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia. "We are all doing what comes instinctively."

Gunnarson's crew is veteran — 28 employees who design and develop new parks every season at 15 ski areas across the West, including Buttermilk, Snowmass and Vail — but the double pipe was their biggest challenge.

Professional snowboarder Scotty Lago heads through a notch to transfer from pipe one to pipe two during the Red Bull double pipe practice at Buttermilk
Professional snowboarder Scotty Lago heads through a notch to transfer from pipe one to pipe two during the Red Bull double pipe practice at Buttermilk Mountain on Friday. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

The 180-foot-wide, 550-foot-long pair of 22-foot-tall halfpipes separated by a 4-foot-wide spine is the largest halfpipe ever built. Features like wall rides and rails line the halfpipe decks and its spine.

The SPT team sculpted the original X Games halfpipe at Buttermilk by moving dirt and digging a trench so pipe construction requires less snowmaking for the environmentally friendly Aspen Skiing. They had to tear down the X Games pipe and fill the trench with snow to make it match the grade of the adjacent run for the double pipe.

"It's one of the most complicated and technical builds we have ever done. Totally next level," Gunnarson said. "A lot of tactical planning has gone into that. Trying to get those two to match up is a big challenge."

The trio of outfits behind this weekend's double pipe contest can share as much credit for the breakneck progression of freeskiing and snowboarding as the athletes.

Red Bull is a longtime supporter and champion of the world's top action sports athletes, enabling them to pursue athletic triumph.

Aspen Skiing's X Games is the stage that propelled once obscure sports into the Olympics, turning hard-working teens into international superstars.

And California-based SPT builds the highest caliber halfpipes and slopestyle courses that fling athletes skyward and ease their transition back to snow.

There's a strong bond between SPT and top-tier athletes. When the world's best stand atop an SPT course or pipe, they know jump trajectories and landing zones are right. They can think about their tricks, not the design.

"Our job is to work with them," Gunnarson said, "to create venues that are going to allow them to shine at their highest level."

That trust was never more evident than last month at the Olympics. An unknown park designer struggled with warm snow and untested designs that failed in the eyes of SPT-honed athletes. The course designer trashed the bottom of the pipe trying to fix the walls. The slopestyle course required major changes to jumps and landings.

Athletes lamented the conditions and many bemoaned SPT's absence.

The riders in Russia didn't know the park designer. There wasn't the history or interaction that athletes appreciate when they are planning to spin themselves off 80-foot jumps or up 22-foot vertical walls.

"I've known Gunny and those guys since I was like 10 years old, and they are kind of like family for me," Olympic snowboard slopestyle gold medalist Jamie Anderson said. "So going to the X Games or the Burton Open and just trusting and knowing that the jumps are going to be absolutely perfect and transitions are on point, you don't feel like you are dropping out of the sky."

SPT visited the Russian Olympic venue and in 2012 bid on the design and development of the halfpipe and slopestyle course, but didn't get a call back.

"I followed up four or five times and literally never got any response — a yes, or no, or anything," Gunnarson said.

Red Bull approached Aspen Skiing last fall with the plan for the double pipe.

Aspen Skiing, which has for more than a decade worked with Red Bull and SPT on the X Games, gave a tentative nod despite the lack of a historical blueprint.

"Part of our guiding principle is celebrating athletic achievement, and this is new and different and super cool," said John Rigney, Aspen Skiing's head of events and sales, noting that lodging reservations spiked for the double pipe weekend after it was announced.

The amount of buzz surrounding the event — from athletes, media and the terrain park community as a whole — makes Rigney feel that shuttering the park for the couple of weeks of double pipe construction was the right call. The long-term payoff doesn't come until NBC splashes the event on television April 12.

"But this is no small undertaking. We asked ourselves: Is the cost of shutting down the park for the period it takes to create it worth it?" he said. "We felt it was."

Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, jblevins@denverpost.com or twitter.com/jasontblevins

Red Bull double pipe competition

Qualifiers are noon to 3 p.m. Saturday.

Finals are noon to 3 p.m. Sunday.

Free for spectators.