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Plenty of piping thrills at Spirit Mountain

A snowboarder is dwarfed in Spirit Mountain's 350-foot-long, 15-foot-high super pipe, while farther downhill a skier moves past one of the park's shorter jumps. Once the nearly exclusive realm of snowboarders, many skiers have discovered the fun of terrain parks. (Steve Kuchera /

On a recent mild day, Sam Kluver sat on a snow bank at Spirit Mountain, video camera ready to catch the action as a friend came snowboarding down the Amp Energy Terrain Park.

"It's probably the best one I've been to in Minnesota," Kluver said of the park. "It's actually got decent-sized jumps."

Kluver comes to Duluth several times each winter from Eagan, Minn., to board at Spirit Mountain.

"It's worth the trip," he said.

There was a time in the 1990s when many ski hills didn't know what to make of snowboarders like Kluver. But then ski hills realized that snowboarders represented a potentially large source of revenue.

The result has been a growth in the number, size and complexity of terrain parks -- areas on ski hills designed for snowboarders and skiers who love challenging themselves on jumps, half- and quarter-pipes and jibs. Spirit Mountain, Giants Ridge and Lutsen Mountains all have terrain parks.

Many people's image of a terrain park is of an area populated by testosterone-fueled teens and 20-somethings attempting near-suicidal stunts on snowboards. But terrain parks also attract children and skiers.

"You'll see 5- and 6-year-old kids out on the hill with their boards and helmets," said Linda Johnson, Giants Ridge's managing director.

And while terrain parks were almost exclusively used by snowboarders when ski hills first offered them, "now it's probably 60/40 percent snowboarders-skiers," said Jim Vick, director of marketing for Lutsen Mountains.

Freestyle terrain came to Spirit Mountain in the early 1990s, with the Big Air Freestyle Park and the snowboarders-only Outlaw Park. In the early 2000s, the two runs were combined to form the Big Air Terrain Park.

The explosion of snowboarding's popularity was one of the largest transitions at downhill ski areas in years. When marketing director Brianna Johnson started at Spirit Mountain 13 years ago, skiers probably outnumbered snowboarders by better than 2-1. Now the numbers are about evenly split.

"It's really changed how we do business and the services we provide," Johnson said. "Their needs are different; their expectations are different. There's a lot of manpower that goes into designing and maintaining a terrain park. You have to keep changing and mixing up your terrain park so it doesn't become boring."

Creating Spirit Mountain's terrain park begins each year with layout planning in the fall. When temperatures drop enough for snowmaking, workers shape jumps and pipes with machines and hand tools. Jibs -- objects and obstacles such as rails and logs that snowboarders jump over or upon -- are dropped into place.

"The overall layout scheme of our main park has been maintained since its inception," said Eric Osterman, who manages Spirit Mountain's terrain park. "The jump lines and jib lines have been shuffled and tweaked every year with safety, traffic flow and freshness in mind. We try to switch up our jib placement every year with additions and location changes throughout the season."

Some changes are prompted by what Spirit Mountain employees see in the terrain park.

"We get up to 900 people coming through there an hour," Osterman said. "If they're starting to plug up in certain areas, we'll figure out what we can do to keep people flowing through the park."

Other changes come from visitors' suggestions. Last summer workers leveled out the area below one of the larger jumps to make safer landings. On many of the jumps there's 45 feet between the top of a jump to the "sweet spot" for landing.

"We have a lot of critics, which is great," Osterman said. "Year after year we're getting more and more positive comments about what we're doing."

Jackson Nemmers of Cloquet is one critic.

"I like it a lot this year. Their rail set-up is pretty good this year -- a lot better than last year," he said.

One change Spirit Mountain made last year was opening its beginner-oriented Progression Park last year with small jumps, rails, ledges and a box.

"Our Progression Park has been a very exciting addition for our customers," Osterman said.

Among the skiers using Spirit Mountain's terrain park recently was a group of families and friends visiting from Eau Claire, Wis. The group included several kids eager to try the terrain park's jumps.

"They're high. They're big. They're cool. You can jump high," Briggs Reinke, 5, said of the park's jumps.

"It's awesome," said Claire Mettler, 10. "It's fun catching air. It's a good place to be with your family."