Terrain park: two words to send any self-respecting snowboarder into a happy daydream – and most skiers running to the nearest après-ski bar. You may already have eyed one through the ropes at your favourite resort: a cordoned-off area populated by ominous-looking cheese wedge jumps (or "kickers" or "booters" – see panel, right), handrails, picnic tables and boxes bent into unusual shapes (these are known as "jibs"), and young people wearing unfeasibly voluminous trousers.
These zones might look intimidating, but today almost every resort worth its snow cannon has some kind of terrain or fun park. They are usually designed to cater for riders and skiers (yes, two planks are as welcome as one) of every standard, and they are evolving fast.
Like snowboarding as a whole, terrain parks have their roots in skateboarding culture. In the 1980s, the first US snowboarders usually found out about the sport through skateboarding. It was only natural that they would try to copy skate tricks on their snowboards. They also decided to try to copy the same ramps and jumps . The first terrain parks were the result.
These formative years were important in deciding snowboarding's future direction. By 1990, there were enough young and innovative staff members at Vail, Colorado, to persuade the resort's owners to build the world's first purpose-built terrain park. Today, Vail (vail.snow.com) lives up to its pioneering reputation by having one of the best parks in the business: the Golden Peak Terrain Park. It has three separate areas to explore – Aviator, Fly Zone and Flight School – and includes obstacles ranging from a Superpipe (an Olympic-sized half-pipe) to a mini-pipe for first-timers.
The development of the Vail park lit the touchpaper on the terrain-park revolution and marked the shift of what was a minority sport into the mainstream. It caused a shift in the attitude of resorts towards snowboarders, too. For the first time, forward-thinking resorts sought to attract snowboarders rather than ban them, as had been the case just a few years earlier. For snowboarders themselves, the presence – or lack – of a terrain park was an instant way of gauging a resort's snowboarder-friendliness.
In recent years, resorts have taken the "if you build it, they will come" dictum to heart. One such is the resort of Seegrube, near Innsbruck. So taken were the entrepreneurs of Seegrube with the idea of terrain parks that they went the whole hog and changed the name of the entire resort to Nordpark (nordpark.com). Today it boasts one of the best parks in Europe. Much of this is to do with the park's spectacular view over the spires of Innsbruck, which forms a vertiginous backdrop to every obstacle. Floodlights and a 2,000-watt sound system mean night-time party sessions are also popular. For more information, see skylinepark.at.
Good terrain parks offer facilities for snowboarders of every standard, although most parks have a set of guidelines to ensure newcomers don't brain themselves on their first attempt. Don't fret that you will be expected to throw yourself from an enormous, death-defying height, either: most parks have easy runs for beginners, and usually try to utilise interesting natural features – gullies, tree runs and the like – for people to ride.
The exotically named Jurassik Park in the Italian ski resort of Folgaria (folgariaski.it) is a good example of the unintimidating approach. It has its fair share of frightening jumps (including one 18-metre monster) and handrails, but it also features some mellow beginner obstacles, where newcomers can gain confidence.
Of course, for resorts with a finite amount of space, terrain parks make good sense. But despite the leaps and bounds being made by resorts such as Folgaria, not every ski area has embraced the craze quite so openly. Terrain parks are time-consuming to create, need staff to maintain them and require a huge initial investment.
Resorts such as Chamonix in France, already celebrated as one of the best natural terrain parks in the world, manages just fine without an artificial version. In fact, the French seem to be resistant to terrain parks in general.
In other countries, notably the US and New Zealand, the trend is towards all-mountain parks. These were pioneered in 2002 at Snow Summit (snowsummit.com) near Los Angeles. The resort's proprietors bought the neighbouring mountain, Big Bear (bearmountain.com), and created an enormous dedicated terrain park area. Today it has 150 jumps and 80 jibs dotted around the pistes, as well as plenty of unique features designed by the dedicated park crew that staff the mountain.
At the Snow Park resort (snowparknz.com) in New Zealand, they've taken the idea one step further. Snow Park has only one chairlift and is no larger than four football pitches laid side to side, but the owners have used this tiny size to their advantage, simply by making the place one gigantic park. There are no pistes, just jumps, rails, half pipes and endless other obstacles to keep riders occupied. The arrangement has proved so popular that this tiny hill on the South Island is now one of the best-known resorts in the snowboarding world.
Snow Park occupies a unique position on the world scene, offering top pros such as Shaun White (who filmed an entire section of his biopic The White Album there) the chance to ride the best stuff in the world, and everybody else the opportunity to ride with the pros in an environment designed to enhance your skills. This model is likely to become more common.
We've not quite reached this stage in Europe, but as well as Jurassik Park there are other forward-thinking resorts getting in on the act. The Nova Park (novapark. info) at the Silvretta Montafon Bergbahnen ski area (silvreattanova.at) is touted as Austria's largest terrain park.
The owners are certainly thinking big, having spent last summer moving tons of earth around to create better obstacles. The result: 10 jumps, 20 jibs and an enormous 120-metre half pipe, watched over patiently by a crew of seven shapers and a designer. A strict safety code is intended to ensure people don't overstretch themselves.
Another innovative resort to have taken terrain parks to heart is Hemsedal ( hemsedal.com) in Norway. There are three parks on offer, colour-coded so that beginners don't get into trouble. The blue park has the smallest jumps, for people leaving the ground for the first time or intermediates looking to practise new stunts.
The red park has its own dedicated lift and has larger jumps, while the black park is full of scary kickers and rails that are for experts. The season is long at Hemsedal: during the spring the resort runs special sessions and contests that attract pros and riders from all over the world.
The most recent development to hit the terrain park world is a move to using natural obstacles instead of man-made rails and jumps. Snowboard-maker Burton is the main player here, and is behind the development of the Stash (thestash.com) runs in Avoriaz, France (avoriaz. com) and the Austria resort of Flachauwinkl (absolutpark.com/thestash). The idea is to take advantage of a resort's natural terrain. So instead of metal or plastic rails and jumps constructed by bulldozers and piste-bashers, the obstacles on offer at the Stash runs are entirely made out of wood, earth, trees and stone.
The runs are also long – up to a mile long in Avoriaz – so riders are encouraged to take continuous, flowing runs rather than repeatedly hit the same jumps. Even the signs on site have been designed for riders to use as part of their runs.
Well-designed terrain parks mean more snowboarders through the turnstiles and more revenue for the resort. They also mean it's an exciting time to be a snowboarder.
Jibs and jumps: the boarding lexicon
Jump: A jump can be two metres or 30m from take-off to landing. They are usually made up of snow or, in larger cases, earthworks covered in snow. Also known as "kickers", "booters" or "cheese wedges".
Jibs: A jib is anything in the terrain park that isn't a regular jump, although in snowboarding the word "jib" is a verb as well as a noun. So snowboarders "jib" picnic tables, handrails, trees, fun-boxes, wall rides and garbage cans, which are also individually and collectively known as "jibs".
Rails: A metal handrail which is used by snowboarders and skiers for sliding tricks.
Funbox: A metal or plastic box that is lower on the ground and as such is an easier version of a handrail.
Picnic table or bench: Placed in the park for snowboarders and skiers to slide on (they usually have metal edges).
Tabletop: The flat part of the jump between take-off and landing. On larger jumps, landing on the tabletop instead of the landing (or, even worse, on "the knuckle" where they meet) can result in serious injury.
Gap: A jump with a gap between take-off and landing, as opposed to a table-top.
Step-up: A jump with a higher landing than take-off.
Hip: A jump where the landing is adjacent to the take-off, at an angle of 90 degrees.
Half-pipe: Two concave walls facing each other. Each wall has a vertical lip, meaning riders go straight up in the air, and the entire thing points downhill so riders can maintain speed.
Quarter-pipe: One side of a half-pipe, so riders are launched up in the air and land on the same take-off.