By Anders Hagman
Buckled way too hard into my bindings, I was looking out over a sizeable part of Switzerland often referred to as Rheintal. But a whole different aspect of my snowboarding life was on my mind. What I was thinking about was how much I missed a tool to sharpen my edges with: a file.
As I tune my board regularly, I don’t usually miss a file that much, but the Laax halfpipe – which I was about to drop into – had been groomed during the previous night. To perfection as always, I must add. It had however been reshaped at one of those infrequent times during midwinter when the southern Sirocco winds make it all the way across the Italian Alps intact. The slush yesterday was evident in icicles hanging from everything in the ski area, now glistening in the first sunrays of the early morning. In the morning hours the wind had died, and the temperature had returned to an average for early January – about twelve degrees below zero. Do I need to spell out the words ‘Blue Ice’ to make you understand why I was missing a tool that could sharpen my edges?
Flims Laax Falera – the resort’s full name – has been at the forefront of modern snowboarding since the early 1990s. Possibly due to its central location in Switzerland, within a few hours drive from several major cities and just a quick hop off the autobahn, it has attracted generations of snowboarders. But there is another factor at play as well, something they deserve hard-earned credit for: a consistently world-class halfpipe for over 10 consecutive years. A halfpipe which has born and bred more halfpipe superstars than you can shake your 10 points scorecard at. The location of the pipe is terrific too, just a short walk from the futuristic spaceship-like gondola top station, and to state that the view from it is breathtaking would be an understatement. Snowboarders living in eastern Switzerland are a lucky bunch.
Today’s halfpipe designers usually take the stand ‘the bigger the better’, but sometimes you can look at one of their creations for more than an hour without seeing anyone get over the lip. We bow before them and shiver, humbled even prior to dropping in. For the ones who can both ride a snowboard fast and control it in the air they are a blast – but how many can make both of those claims? Why they all go for the ‘superpipe’ concept is not that puzzling considering the sheer market value of the term. Yet sometimes could it possibly also be attributed to a lack of imagination? If you can’t create something interesting to ride, you should stop making parks and pipes and start making huge perfectly groomed flat slopes. The Laax halfpipe is a prime example that bigger doesn’t always have to be better – and there are more examples of this.
Stratton Mountain, Vermont, USA. It’s as classic as it gets… The home of Burton snowboards, Stratton was the first US ski resort to allow snowboarding. Ross Powers, both World and Olympic champion, grew up there. And even though the pipe has moved around some over the last years, Stratton can probably boast that it created the world's first true halfpipe in the late 1980s – something close to what the skateboarders were riding – and without doubt still clinging onto a top spot.
Levi, in Finnish Lapland, has a long boarding season from mid-October to the beginning of June. The highest vertical drop may be a humble 325 metres, but they compensate with a consistently shaped superpipe, one halfpipe and a large park. So if you appreciate riding a really, really good halfpipe – and you can stand living in harsh competition with packs of insanely hard working Finns (as well as without any sunlight from November to February) – then it’s actually worth a trip up there.
Anyone travelling the globe full time in search of halfpipes can probably add more places who care for their halfpipe as if it were their baby, or at least one of their main sources of income, but even the list of these would not be that long. If we were looking at parks, the same list would be longer – but the issue remains the same for them: Super-Size-It is not always better.
So what happened in Laax? Despite the early hours that morning, quite a few of the locals plus some visitors had made it to the pipe already. Most of them were hanging around the top of the pipe and although the view of the valley below was incredible at least half of them were watching each and every rider to drop in. My turn was next… and how I was missing my file, for the moment located some 22 hours drive away in my tool shed back in Sweden.
“Dropping next…." As I dropped in, my thoughts focused on the wall ahead of me. Would I be able to make it up it, or would I slide down the U-tube like a Bavarian sausage on the Oktober fest? Luckily it was the first and I took flight, perhaps not cat-like but with enough balance to grab, tweak some, checkout the view again (it was still really good), and finally place my board just below the coping. There was no roar from the crowd but I could sense some respect in their eyes on my back. So may whatever God you put your faith in – and the resort you pay your ski pass money to – bless your perfectly shaped halfpipe. Because you can usually ride it quite well even if mother nature has taken a vacation or had a mishap. So my mind had slipped when I packed my bags for this road trip. But thinking about it, it keeps slipping, but this time to the fact that each and every resort should have a halfpipe like the one in Laax: they shouldn’t forget a view to match either.
Anders Hagman is a Swedish former pro rider who spent about a decade as a pipe-junkie all over the planet. He even dug them out by hand at Mt Hood, USA, as a night-time job for a while.