NORTHSTAR — This ominous, 22-foot high superpipe frequently acts as a magnet. Both snowboarders and skiers of all levels are drawn to this portion of the mountain at Northstar California ski resort, where they love to peer down the enormous chute that measures more than 500 feet in length.
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Skiers and riders stare in amazement at the enormity of the superpipe for several minutes or more, then the majority carefully descend down the middle, most of them barely touching these huge, manicured walls that people know is the occasional training ground of snowboarding superstar Shaun White.
Once at the bottom of the pipe, practically everyone stops, peers up the hill, and realizes this monstrous snow structure looms even larger from this vantage point, which is located off Northstar’s Cat’s Face trail and accessible via the Vista Express chairlift.
“That pipe was made for Shaun White. Just looking at it your first impression is it’s big and scary,” said Dylan Gomes, a 19-year-old snowboarder from Santa Clarita in Southern California. “Looking down at the pipe is really intimidating. But once you are riding in it and cruising, it’s fine. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Those words are no doubt music to the ears of Andrew Erath, who has the regular assignment of keeping the “Shaun White Superpipe” in pristine condition. And speaking of music, Erath is extremely picky about what’s on his iPod during his nightly grooming ritual in the Zaugg pipe cutter.
“I listen mostly to classical music of all kinds and occasional talk radio,” says Erath, who typically emerges from the superpipe at about 1:30 a.m., concluding another seven-hour shift in pursuit of perfection. “I can’t listen to (heavy) metal – this job takes too much concentration.”
Erath is the envy of most Northstar employees, and not just because he has a slight resemblance to Hollywood’s Ashton Kutcher. He has met White on several occasions, watches him train at the superpipe, and talks to the red-headed snowboarding icon about his impressions of Erath’s masterpiece, one of only seven superpipes in the U.S. with these outrageous dimensions, according to Northstar communications personnel.
Last summer White provided some input regarding the building of the superpipe, which required 700 hours to erect in December. Erath is quick to point out that he had “a lot of help” in designing and building the famed superpipe. Snow Park Technologies, Northstar’s long-time partner in park and pipe program development, also played a pivotal role.
Yet the feedback from White is typically reserved solely for Erath.
“I met Shaun White last year. He and I know each other a little bit,” says Erath, avoiding any personal information regarding White, which Northstar forbids. “I asked him what he thought of the superpipe this year, and he said — ‘It doesn’t need anything.’ It’s amazing to watch someone with that high level of skill do it in person.”
Although his visits are never publicized, the rumor spreads quickly among some Northstar employees when White is training at the resort, which he’s done twice this year. However, many employees have no clue when he is there, that’s how quiet the secret is kept. And if they do know, they’ve been instructed to not reveal any details if they happen to encounter White on or off the mountain.
Erath isn’t star struck regarding his encounters with White — far from it. Snowcat and cutter operators like Erath are artists in a sense. They carefully cut and groom pipes and terrain park features in precise fashion. While Erath admits there is some pressure in helping design, build and maintain the superpipe where White can hone his amazing skills and also develop new ones, the “Flying Tomato” is not the only person he’s trying to please.
“I try to ride the pipe every day. It’s important for me to know how it feels and also watch other people and how they are doing,” Erath said. “It’s great that Shaun White is here and trains on it. But I take great satisfaction in trying to make it as perfect as I can for everybody. It gives our guests a world-class pipe to ride on a daily basis.”
Not everyone feels so privileged.
When White was at Northstar ski resort for a few days of training in mid-February, San Jose snowboarder Joe Hughes was annoyed that the entire area was shut down, which included Logger’s Run.
White’s training sessions are as guarded as a visit from the President. The Northstar trails around the superpipe are closed and reportedly security guards and resort personnel are positioned in the woods to ensure that no one sees or takes photos of what tricks White may be creating.
“I know he’s Shaun White, but I don’t think it’s fair that they shut down everything when he was here,” Hughes said. “There was fresh powder in that area and no one could access it. I don’t like that they were closing runs for him.”
That opinion doesn’t seem to summarize how the masses feel. For many, just to stare at the outrageously large pipe and realize that the world’s most accomplished snowboarder trains on it is extremely cool, regardless of any inconveniences.
“It’s a world-class superpipe that was built for Shaun White. How cool is it that? And we can use it as well?” said Northstar passholder Patrick Kosinski. “But it’s really big and can be icy. I’m pretty careful when I go in there — I don’t go that high.”
Jeffrey Weidel can be reached at [email protected]. Visit his winter website at examiner.com/skiing-in-san-francisco/jeffrey-weidel