If Australian ski resorts where handed out report cards for their terrain park season performance, then Perisher's would show a steady improvement over the years, culminating in outstanding A+ results of late.
Mountainwatch | Ryan Wilmott
Much of this progression can be attributed to a change in the park building and grooming team. This new team isn't afraid to take criticism on board, in fact they constantly go out of their way to gather input from those who habitually ride the terrain park everyday for their feedback.
Dougie Graham, Cooma born and bred, has been behind the controls, driving cats around Perisher for the past seven years. Cat driving isn't the sort of trade one learns overnight though this is the type of position that only becomes available through experience. Dougie started off free grooming runs on front valley, before deciding to pursue his craft more seriously overseas, clocking up five back to back seasons between Perisher and Squaw Valley in Tahoe, Canyons Resort at Park City and the past season just gone at Whistler in Canada. Three years ago he was lucky enough to finally land a start building his beloved front valley park at night, clocking off in the early daylight hours, just as the first lift wheels start turning. But rather than heading home to sleep like most of his colleagues, Dougie can often be found putting his work from the night before to the test on his snowboard.
The man behind the magic, Dougie Graham. Photo Andy Lloyd.
One of the first people in the park every morning is Russell Henshaw, a freestyle skiing genius who really needs no introduction. Not only the first skier to land a triple cork in competition, but also the owner of an X Games silver medal courtesy of an outstanding slopestyle run in 2011. Having first started skiing at age 3, the now 22 year old maintains his consistency by religiously lapping the park at Perisher. Most mornings you'll find Russell skiing with Dougie in tow, a partnership that is beneficial for the both of them. "I go riding with Doug virtually everyday" Russell explains. "As Dougie rides a snowboard, I give him a lot of feedback on how the features ride for a skier. It's great having someone there on the hill that listens." Dougie whole heartedly agrees with Russ' statement, "we take in a lot of what the elite riders say, those guys have ridden parks all over the world, so you value their opinions. But, we also get a lot of advice from our everyday park rat on what they think too."
Russ Henshaw getting ready to drop into Perisher's Front Valley Park. Photo Andy Lloyd.
This past Northern Hemisphere winter while working in Whistler, Dougie was part of the construction team that built the end of season jump for Matchstick Productions, the number one ski film production company out of the USA. Russell as it turns out just happened to be one of the elite skiers lucky enough to score an invite to session the sunset jump; a high point in the careers for both guys. "The iconic Whistler jump was the biggest I've seen it built in years", says Dougie. "It was a really fun and exciting experience. I spent a fair few days pushing snow into place for Charles (Beckinsale) to create that masterpiece. To see the finished product and to see the team of guys that hit it, was a really good feeling for sure".
You know Dougie isn't exaggerating about the size of the jump when a skier of Russell's experience admits to being apprehensive about hitting it. "That jump was a bit nerve racking at first, as I was the guinea pig who had to test it. Once the weather cleared though, it was probably the most fun I've ever had on a jump that size." And just how big was it you ask? "It was about 85 foot big, but we were easily going 100 foot on it. It had a super kicky takeoff too, the takeoff was about 32 degrees as opposed to the normal 38 degree angle" explains Russell.
For elite athletes like Russell there is a growing need for regularly hitting progressively sized features to maintain their ability levels. Perisher's front valley park bottom jump has long been regarded as the jewel in the crown of freestyle facilities on offer in Australia. Being the largest jump you'll find in any of the country's terrain parks, getting its construction right is not only of functionality importance, but also a major safety concern as well. A factor that hasn't gone unnoticed by Russell, "the changes have been great in the past couple of years. Perisher is way more involved with their park building. Two weeks after the season opened, there was a 30 foot jump in the park for the official opening day which is virtually unheard of for Australia."
The Front Valley Park looking mighty tasty last year. Photo Perisher.
According to Dougie, much of the improvement and direction the park has taken have largely come about through the appointment of Brandon Strong as terrain park manager. Brandon, whose work with Snow Park Technologies on the park at Northstar at Tahoe gained the interest of Perisher management, is a seven year veteran who started off in the parks of Austria and Switzerland for 3 years then on to Northstar for the past 4 years. "Perisher has always been taking steps towards improving their park facilities", says Dougie. "Getting someone like Brandon out here has been a real plus, as his experience and knowledge really helps us. We're working towards building a team that can compete with everyone else around the world."
Imported Help: Brandon Strong from SPT. Photo Andy Lloyd.
Making the transition to Perisher from Tahoe, where the average snowfall is less than a third of what it is in Tahoe, took some adjusting too, says Brandon.
"First impressions of Australia were that it is going to be challenging with the snow levels available, but there are a lot of motivated people and strong management support for the parks, which really helps. When I showed up here at Perisher, a lot of the features here were a little dated. So we made sure we got some more round rails and more urban styled features. We also added some new snow making pipes that are proving to be really popular this year. We're working on a mix of fixing up the current features we have along with adding new things all the time. We try our best to accommodate all levels of riders and make the best parks out of what we have to work with."
Nate Johnstone enjoying Perisher's early season park. Photo Andy Lloyd.
The improvement in Perisher's park and pipe, have not gone unnoticed by 2011 FIS halfpipe World Champ, Nate Johnstone either. Having ridden at Perisher since he was 10 years old, Nate rates last year's facilities as the best he's seen it so far. "For sure I've noticed a big change in the park in the past couple of years. The features have gotten a whole lot better and the jumps are bigger and smoother to ride as well. They've definitely stepped up their game big time", says Nate. "I did my first runs of the season through the park last weekend and it was so fun. I can't wait to get back up there." A statement that has surely been echoed by a lot of riders at Perisher so far this season.