For five months, I made money as a professional Terrain Park tester at Northstar California, in the beautiful Sierra Nevadas by Lake Tahoe. For those of you who are new to or know nothing about the world of winter sports and ski resort operations, let me explain what a terrain park tester is.
At a ski resort, a “Park” is not simply a place with grass, swings, and benches, where people may take a stroll through of a Sunday afternoon. (Although some ski resort parks do have benches, and um, grass). I once heard someone referring to the terrain park as full of “death machines”, and I’ve heard mothers trying to convince their small children on skis to dare not venture in there. What it really is, is a place where the resort builds jumps, halfpipes, rails, and other creative features that skiers and snowboarders ride on. If you watched the Olympics, think of the halfpipe and slopestyle events. That’s a terrain park. I test them.
O.K, so maybe I wasn’t a “terrain park tester”, but it sounds cool… and dangerous. Park Crew was my official job title, although some may refer to us as “the groomers”, “park staff”, or “the boys” (even if, by some miracle, there are actually girls on park crew, like me). Park Crew actually does a lot more than ride around all day and smoke pot (the latter, by the way, I personally do not partake in).
I knew this job would be a good fit for me, mainly because I love to ride the park. During my job interview, they didn’t have enough chairs in the office, so my boss pulled up an empty paint bucket and flipped it upside down and sat on it. There were also puppies running around the office. It was then that I felt I could loosen up and be myself, even interviewing for a job at a world-class resort. I got to talk about my ideal terrain park, even using words like “de-gape-ify”, and all the words they tell you not to use at job interviews like “super cool” and “gnarly”. A few hours later, they told me I got the job. I hesitated to take it at first, because I had just graduated college with a business degree, and people have this idea that park crew isn’t for people with degrees. But then I was like, what the heck, I’ve always wanted to be park crew for a season. Now’s my time.
So, like I said, we don’t just ride around and test features all day, as much as I wish that were my job. We do so much of the nitty-gritty work that needs to get done, like putting up the fences at the exit, and tightening rope lines that mark the boundaries of the resort. It’s crazy the stuff I never noticed even after years of riding at ski resorts. Like, someone has to put up all those signs and fences and take them down every day for the grooming machines to get through.
Think ski patrol is always the first one on the hill? Think again. at Northstar, park crew is up there even before ski patrol, and we’re off the hill after them. We see the sunrise and the sunset in the same shift, and not just at the end of December either. We are 20 guys and 2 girls out there in the freezing-your-butt-off cold, making sure Northstar’s terrain park is nothing short of perfect. We are out there with our “sporks” which are like a shovel and a rake in one, shaping each takeoff to make the features ride smoothly for the skiers and snowboarders to come.
When it snows, we shovel all the snow off the 100+ rails and boxes, only to go back out in an hour and shovel again like a never-ending cycle. When it doesn’t snow, we shovel snow back on to the rails and boxes so they don’t fall over. At the end of every day, we use those trusty sporks to hand-shape every takeoff, beaten up by thousands of skis and snowboards. We’re out there on those really hot spring days, riding down the run with our big buckets full of salt to spread on takeoffs so they ice over rather than melt. 60 degrees feels like 90 when you’re in the sun, raking slush off a jump takeoff and melting snow on your head to cool the heat. Shoveling in the winter is tiring, but spring is a whole different tiring.
Despite all this hard work, people still look at the terrain park department differently. We’re the misfits. At a ski resort, the departments like ski school, marketing, real estate, and ski racing teams, are looked up to as the “ritzy”, classy departments that make the ski resort what it is. Skiing and snowboarding have become less of an extreme sport and more of something rich people do on vacation. Kind of like yachting or eating caviar (I don’t know what they do, I mean, I’m not rich people.) Over here in the terrain parks world, guests and upper management do think of us as, like I said before, riding around all day and smoking pot. We are, as people in my department have said, “the red-headed step child” of the resort.
Some guests though, do treat us like heroes. They will see us out there making the park look good, and say things like “Thank you for your service!”, “You rock”, or “now there’s the real MVP!”. I’ve heard parents ski by and tell their kids, “OK, little Johnny, now make sure you say thank you to the park groomer!”. We get fist bumps, high fives, and the occasional person taking time out of their ski run to tell us how fun the park is.
On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve had people yell expletives at us after closing the halfpipe. I’ve even been mooned on the job. People spray us, pee on our rails, call us “gay”, and complain to us because their favorite rail to side-jump is closed for 5 minutes. Some days, people go out of their way to mess with us, taking all the flags off the jumps and throwing them into the woods just to see us have to put them back every 10 minutes.
So you do lots of hard work, and most people don’t even see it, and sure you might get a little recognition, but you also get people mooning you and swearing at you just for doing your job. So why do it?
Every day, tons of people come through our terrain park, the product of our hard work, our pride and joy, and its obvious they’re having the time of their life. From the kid with the edgie-wedgie side jumping every rail takeoff on presidents’ day, to the guy in a unicorn onsie doing 1.5 backflips off the big jump, the park has to be the funnest place on the hill. People laugh and smile and take videos of each other. They fly through the air and glide over rails. People of all ages are out there in the park having fun, and seeing that makes park crew’s day.
And yes, when we’re not raking, drilling, shoveling snow off features, shoveling snow back on features, getting flipped off, loading the chair with 50 pounds of salt, yelling at little kids in landings, putting back jump flags, untangling ropes, driving big machines, lifting fallen-over rails, or setting our alarms for 5am…
We’re testing the park. ;D