Snow sport area operators find themselves caught between things that rock and a hard place.
On the one side are the demands of an increasingly skilled group of freeriders for bigger and more challenging terrain features. And on the other are the parents, insurance companies and the operators themselves who want to make sliding down a slope both safe and fun.
Kissing Bridge President Mark Halter said the challenge is to keep the customers happy while staying within the bounds of safety.
"We are producing reasonable appliances. We can't make it so tepid that the audience doesn't want it," he said. "We try to give them incrementals, a graduated sequence of challenges. For the top-end skier, we ignore them. We go as big as we can reasonably."
Last year, the National Ski Areas Association asked the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) to find a way to reconcile these sides. The first fruits of this effort will be seen at Western New York resorts this winter.
The main thrust is devoted to progressive learning.
"We are also emphasizing the importance of learning parks, with features that start out easy so the rider can stay within their ability as they progress to bigger features or more difficult tricks," PSIA's Linda Crockett said.
Learning parks have opened at Bristol Mountain and Swain. Kissing Bridge added a learning park last year but tripled its size this year. HoliMont has elements designed for a learning park and is considering taking over a slope and installing these easier elements this year.
Among the features that KB, Bristol and Swain are installing are fun boxes with wide surfaces and rails that are square instead of rounded, which makes grinding easier.
"The kids are intimidated by the terrain park," said Kissing Bridge spokeswoman Rachel Fanelli. "It's too aggressive for many kids."
"Kids can start as small as they want to and work their way up," said Jake Raymond, in charge of the terrain park at KB. "You have to be confident before you go to a rail or a jump because if you think you are going to fall, you are going to fall."
Bristol is putting its beginner terrain park on its own trail to keep the younger kids away from the older ones using the area's super pipe.
"This means more advanced users don't have to worry about the little kids," said Bristol marketing director Ryan Robbins. "It enhances safety. We are trying to get a terrain park that won't intimidate newcomers. We are trying to introduce people to it."
General Manager John Gorton said Swain is adding a learner park this year for different reasons.
"Insurance companies hate these things," Gorton said of terrain parks. "There are challenging features in these parks. It is incumbent on areas to give basic instruction from a safety standpoint."
He employs instructors who teach what elements are used and how they are used.
"They are learning features for kids who aren't Olympic quality," Gorton said.
Making terrain parks safe and enjoyable is necessary for the survival of ski areas.
A look at participation numbers nationwide, as provided by SnowSports Industries of America, shows why. From 2000 to 2003, the number of alpine skiers fell from 7.4 million to 6.8 million. During that time, the number of snowboarders increased from 4.3 million to 6.3 million.
Of those snowboarders, 32.2 percent are ages 12-17 and 30 percent are ages 18-24. Of those skiers, 39.5 percent are ages 35-54. Also, men begin to drop out of skiing in their late 50s and women in their late 40s.
To keep track of what the kids like, resort operators hire them. Holiday Valley calls its group the Park Rangers. They make suggestions for new features, maintain takeoff and landing areas that get worn by use, and monitor newcomers. They suggest alternatives if they see someone trying something that's beyond his abilities.
"You get young people to work for you to keep you in touch with the markets," Halter said. "Rails were hot last year. We are adding more this year."
Raymond, a rider, does all of the grooming in KB's terrain park. Raymond employs eight other snowboarders who "know what they want and how it should be," he said.
One of these boarders is always in the park, maintaining the features.
Ron Kubicki, director of snow sports at Holiday Valley, says the resort has "a group of kids, the Park Rangers -- these are young guys who compete at a high level at USASA -- who are in the loop. They exchange e-mails with others around the country. They maintain the features, talk to kids.
"The challenge is they watch things on ESPN at Mammoth (in California) and they want it here. The kids invent things and we have to figure out how to safely manage them. We don't put anything out there we can't manage, that the staff can't monitor and control."
"Kids want jumps they can fly 400 feet from, but what they don't think about are the landings," Halter said.
Still, the kids are getting more of what they want. Kubicki says Holiday Valley will offer a slope style competition -- in which riders go over a series of rails and jumps -- for the first time this winter.
"Ten years ago, you couldn't have air under your skis here," he said.
Operators draw the line at inverted tricks, which carry the highest risk of dangerous injury.
"They are excluded from our insurance so we don't allow them," Halter said. "If we catch someone doing them they will be thrown out."
The ski industry is dealing with three other safety issues.
The first is signage, which can prevent someone from going into an area he isn't ready for. Skiers worldwide recognize the green circle, blue square and black diamond as identifying beginner, intermediate and expert terrain. An orange oval has been designated to mark terrain parks, and symbols for each of the elements have been designed so a rider knows what's ahead.
The second is standard instruction for safe riding.
"We are looking at developing some basic movements that can be applied in any of the various terrain features," PSIA's Crockett said (visit www.psia.org) of the program developed for Freestyle/Park & Pipe instruction.
Also, an instruction manual will come out this season as soon as one more generation gap can be bridged.
Becky Ayers at PSIA in Colorado said the guidelines for the manual were put together in record time, but writing them has been a challenge because of a language barrier between the teens and adults.
"It's tough to make instructional materials because of the terms," Ayers said.
The third is feature design.
Holiday Valley purchased a Zaugg groomer, which comes with an augur that Kubicki says will create a more professional halfpipe. The next challenge is training someone to use it. Kubicki said he's trying to enroll a staff member in the halfpipe Cutter's Camp this spring in Wisp, Md.
"We've been trying to get someone into the camp for years but we haven't been able to because they've been full," he said.
Kubicki also is sending some of his staff to PSIA accreditation classes so they can show people how to use terrain park features.
Andy Minier, a world-class telemark racer on the staff of Kissing Bridge, summed up the state of the sport.
"I have seen the terrain park scene go from a novelty to become a dynamic and integral segment of the industry," he said. "As the sport progresses the top riders continue to push the envelope of what is thought to be possible on skis and snowboards. In an effort to keep up with these elite riders, terrain park designers must find creative and challenging ways to satisfy the athletes. With each passing year the bar is raised.
"In an effort to make terrain park riding available to younger and less experienced athletes we feel it is important to provide an area where the 'hits' are a bit less intimidating. A 'beginner' terrain park allows skiers to master the basic skills of riding rails, boxes, spines, etc. Riders in the beginner park will develop a solid foundation, progress quickly and, more to the point, have more fun."