At the top of Grouse Mountain, the imagination of snowboarders Sebastien Toutant and Mark McMorris has come to life.
The two Canadians, who helped revolutionize competitive snowboarding, have turned their attention to the way competitive courses are built, in an effort to change the trajectory of the sport. They came up with new ideas for different jumps and Red Bull, one of their main sponsors, turned the ideas into reality. The result is a private playground where Toutant and McMorris and friends will spend the next week to re-imagine what competitive snowboarding can look like.
Progression in snowboard competitions has long been measured in the number of flips and spins young riders perform off large jumps, a trend that has made the sport more about acrobatics than actual snowboarding.
A shift is under way.
McMorris and Toutant lead one push. The two riders, in their mid-20s, pushed the progression of flips and spins when they were in their late teens. As competition veterans, they haven't seen many changes in courses over the years and are hungry for something new. At Grouse Mountain, they want to show what change is possible.
"We're in a good position to do that right now," said McMorris at the top of the course. The goal, he said, was to see "all the resorts start building more creative features."
Another push will be seen at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where the slopestyle course will be unusual. Designed by Schneestern GmbH & Co. in Germany, the course will feature several jumps with various options for the athletes. One example is near the start on the first feature, where an athlete can choose to do a trick off a jump, or jump up onto a high rail, or a third option, to hop on to a small kinked rail. The aim is to stoke variety and creativity.
Six years ago, McMorris, a Regina native, was the first rider to land a backside triple cork 1440, with three off-axis flips and four spins. Toutant, from L'Assomption, Que., landed the same trick soon after. This trick and others have helped the two together win almost 20 medals at the X Games. This winter, younger athletes have added even more spins and flips.
There is a worry that these tricks are turning snowboarding into sports such as freestyle aerials skiing or platform diving, all about intricate spinning, instead of the free-flowing riding that is more the essence of snowboarding. The video planned for Red Bull is called Uncorked.
McMorris sees the shift in tastes and direction in the enthusiasm of fans on his Instagram and Twitter.
"People like to see us do casual tricks too," he said. "That stuff gets just as much love – or more – than the gnarliest trick ever."
Toutant, McMorris, and Craig McMorris, Mark's older brother, sketched out a sheaf of ideas for Red Bull and the Grouse Mountain crew that built them. "What we would like to hit," said Toutant. "What we've never seen before."
One idea that came to life is a series of three rails, called the "Toutant Transfer." One rail with a kink in it leads to two more, on the left and on the right, rider's choice.
A jump that leapt from paper to snow was built with a six-metre-wide gap in the takeoff ramp. Because of the gap, the rider can't simply go as fast as possible to do the biggest trick possible.
Mark McMorris talked about doing a 180-degree spin from the first section of the takeoff to the second and then, riding backward, a "switch back 9" off the lip, 2
"You'll be able to do combos you'd never been able to do," McMorris said.
Marcus Cartwright, the 30-year-old terrain park manager at Grouse Mountain, helped build the course. He said the course encourages subtle technical skills over speed, and rewards "style over spins."
Red Bull funded the project and construction started on Feb. 4, taking about two weeks to build.
"They're putting snowboarding back on its right path," said Cartwright of McMorris and Toutant. "Snowboarding has always been about style."
The Grouse Mountain course – which will be open to the public in a somewhat reduced form in March – also serves as a training ground for the unorthodox 2018 Olympic course, though it doesn't mimic the Olympic course, being different in design but similar in spirit of new types of jumps.
At the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, McMorris won a bronze in slopestyle. Toutant was among the top qualifiers but finished ninth in the finals.
"Korea's going to be a lot different," Toutant said. "The main goal [here] is to hit different features and the more you hit different features, the better prepared [you are] for Korea."
The Olympics are a pinnacle but the event does not loom in the minds of McMorris and Toutant, who will be medal favourites in slopestyle next winter but also among the older competitors. The 2014 men's snowboard slopestyle gold was won by then 19-year-old American Sage Kotsenburg, who won when he scored top points for two unusual tricks.
"Being there for your country, that was a rad moment," Toutant said. "But I see it as another contest. I don't put more pressure on myself. It is important because it happens every four years. I just want to do the run that I've been thinking of. It's all in the judges' hands."