Extreme sports means extreme logistics

by Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

If the jumps look bigger at the bottom of Buttermilk in preparation for this year’s X Games, they probably are.

After all, a bigger take off and landing is needed to pull of a triple-cork flip, and that’s what will likely be required to win the big air competition at this year’s X Games.

“The height of the landing — we are pushing it as far as the height limit,” said Chris Castaneda, operations manager for Snow Park Technologies (SPT), which designs and builds the X Games courses for ESPN.

“We determine the length of it by watching the industry,” Castaneda said.

So just how big is the big air jump?

“That’s confidential information,” he said, “until you get a tape measure and walk up there and measure it yourself.”

Time-lapse videography should be employed to show the transformation of the base area and lower slopes of Buttermilk Mountain into a small city capable of hosing more than 100,000 people over the course of the four-day Winter X Games, which return Jan. 24-27.

“If you look at our vendor contact sheet, we have everyone from scaffolding to the phone company here,” said Anthony Dittmann, director of venue operations for ESPN. “It’s essentially building a small city and building the infrastructure.”

Tens of millions of gallons of water have been converted to snow to make the features, creating the canvass for the world’s best extreme winter athletes to deliver the latest masterpiece. 

“Standing next to these jumps is incredible,” said Buttermilk Mountain Manager Susan Cross. “It’s gone from flat to 40 feet of snow.”

Designing the X Games’ competition venue is a six-month process that begins when Castaneda and the team from SPT walk the hill in the summertime to begin plotting their vision.

“Since we’ve been out here so many years, we know the grade we are working with,” he said. The Winter X Games has been held at Buttermilk every winter since 2002.

 Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Anthony Dittmann, the director of venue operations for ESPN, stands near the massive scaffolding tower at the base of the superpipe on Buttermilk.

The biggest difference with this year’s event is that it will not include a skiercross or boardercross competition, known in X Games parlance as skier X and boarder X. The event would see groups of four to six riders go all out in a race to the bottom of a run full of table-top jumps and banked turns. But building the X course was a major undertaking, and without it, the X Games venue is less congested at the bottom, in terms of the number of events fitting into a small area.

“It was a very difficult decision, and that’s not to say it won’t be back in the future,” Dittmann said. He noted that snowmobile cross or snowcross — a similar concept as skier X but with snowmobiles — will be back this year after a one-year hiatus.

Building an X Games starts with designing the most cutting edge events and courses, and then molding everything around that, Dittmann said.

“If you manipulate it to the TV show, it’s going to be contrived,” said Dittmann, who’s been working for the X Games for 15 years.

With 12 years of X Games at Buttermilk, the efficiencies have grown to the point that Dittmann, a Southern California resident who used to spend upwards of five months here in preparation, can now get most of his job done in five weeks, he said. Many of the 1,500-person crew that it takes to put on an X Games has been doing it at Buttermilk for years now, so people are dialed in and understand the nuances of the set-up process.

“If you make one little move at the venue, a domino effect can occur,” Dittmann said. “ ... Everything is connected.”

It’s a big push to opening day, with some 100 features built around the venue from lights to fencing to boxes and rails. On game day, Dittmann said, the primary concern is moving the crowd around safely.

“The numbers are astounding and the buses are packed,” he said. “But everyone has such a great attitude and it’s a pleasure to be here, even though it’s cold and late and everyone is tired. ... But we see more smiles than anything else and that’s a good thing.”