A jump with the exact proportions of the launch ramp for snowboarding’s big air event, which will make its Olympic debut in Pyeongchang, does not exist in nature. It must be built. And so, fewer than a dozen times a year, at venues ranging from ballparks to parking lots, impeccably orchestrated teams of engineers, ice suppliers, snowmakers, crane operators, up riggers, down riggers, scaffold designers—you get the picture—do exactly that. And at this year’s Winter Games, from February 19—24, snowboarders from around the world will hurl themselves from one of the biggest big air ramps ever conceived.
“They’re crazy projects—I love them,” says Michael Zorena. The owner of the Massachusetts-based Consultantzee, Zorena has led the construction of awe-inspiring structures around the world, from Ai Weiwei’s 20,000-pound, metal-wire “Good Neighbors” installation in New York City to a geodesic, 360° projection sphere in Dubai. But big air ramps are particularly fun. His company recently built two in as many years—the first inside Fenway Park in 2016, the second in a Los Angeles parking lot, last year, at one of Shaun White’s Air + Style music-cum-snowsport festivals.
Most big air ramps are temporary, purpose-built to fit their particular venues. As a result, each is constructed a little differently, but they share a standard anatomy. At the top of the structure, about 150 feet feet up, is the deck, a flat staging area where snowboarders wait to perform their jumps. There’s the inrun—the long, vertiginous drop, typically at an angle between 38 and 39 degrees, that the athletes descend to gain velocity, accelerating to speeds between 35 and 40 miles per hour. Then there’s the kick, an abrupt upsweep at the bottom of the inrun, which flings riders into the air.
Next comes the landing ramp (another long, steep section with an angle similar to that of the inrun), the placement of which is crucial. Its descending slope helps convert the riders’ downward momentum into forward momentum, sparing them the ruinous impact of a multi-story fall. Placing its center about 70 feet from the lip of the kick gives riders ample room to over- or undershoot, maximizing their odds of touching down on a steep decline. Add in the finishing area—a large, increasingly flat corral of snow beginning some 85 feet from the base of the landing ramp—and you’ve got a run that extends between 400 and 500 feet, from nose to tail.
It’s as challenging to build, and build safely, as it sounds. Underpinning all these features is a combination of snow, metal, wood, and—when their dimensions are close enough to those of the desired feature—existing infrastructure and topography. (At Pyeongchang, for instance, the landing ramp was built by layering snow atop a section of stadium seating.)
But the temporary nature of most big air ramps—and their inruns, especially—results in a strikingly industrial aesthetic. Think soaring skeletons of steel scaffolding; the ramp’s bones and joints comprise tens of thousands of rods, fasteners, and clamps. “It’s essentially a big Erector Set,” says Jeremy Thom, an expert in the design of stage sets, amphitheatres, and similarly tremendous structures. The scaffolds of the big air ramps at Fenway and in LA, both of which he designed, consisted of 25,823 and 22,693 individual parts, respectively. (In his CAD files, he accounted for every single component.) “We assemble the structure one piece at a time,” Thom says. “It’s hand crafted. Bespoke. Like a Savile Row suit.”
On many job sites, workers will often erect a scaffold by forming a passline, handing each component from one person to the next. But then, most job sites don’t accommodate scaffolds as colossal as a big air inrun. Workers on the ground build the repetitive elements of the structure, which crane operators hoist up to riggers, who put them in place. Finally, a wood team adds a reinforcing layer of 4×4 lumber before topping everything off with plywood.
That leaves you with what Zorena calls a “faceted gradient”—a curved incline, sure, but one that’s far from even. To dial in a long, smooth slope, you need a lot of snow, which engineers account for when they design the structure: Dry, fresh powder can weigh as little as three pounds per square foot, while an equivalent volume of wet, heavy stuff can tip the scales at upwards of 20 pounds.
Orders of ice can vary by the hundreds of tons, depending on the local weather. A big air event held in Los Angeles in March needs more than one hosted during a New England cold snap. When Zorena and his team began building the big air ramp at Fenway in 2016, they ordered 800 tons of ice from a local supplier in anticipation of unseasonably warm weather. But when the forecast called for a return to sub-freezing temperatures, they slashed their request by half.
In the end, the snow on the ramp is usually no more than 18 inches deep—any more than that and the weight can overwhelm the underlying structure. (“Plus, removal is a nightmare if it’s too deep,” Zorena says.) Snowmakers add a foundation of crushed ice, then blow powder on top; they point upward-facing snow guns in the landing zone, and another set on the deck, pointing down.
Snowcats can smooth out parts of the jump, but much of the work is done by hand. “It’s super labor intensive, not very glamorous—basically shovels and rakes,” says Eric Webster, who, as the US Ski and Snowboard Association’s senior director of events, has overseen the construction of multiple big air ramps. A week before big air’s Olympic debut, snow-shapers overseen by Schneestern—the German company behind the big air features in Pyeongchang—were still tending to the jump.
But the experts I spoke with say it’s worth the effort. The deck of the big air jump in South Korea towers just over 160 feet above the base of the landing ramp (about 10 feet higher than the jump Zorena built in Fenway Park), and its inramp is a degree or two steeper. Expect those variations to translate to even bigger air than the world has seen in competitions past.