Riding the halfpipe is a discipline that comes directly from skateboarding. Because of this, many of the first halfpipe riders were former skateboarders. In some ways, it was easy for them to convert. They already knew the tricks and the rhythm of the sport. And going from a skateboard, which has no bindings, to a snowboard with bindings made them feel loose and relaxed. There was no way to go off the board.
The halfpipe is a long chute with a downward slope, the shape resembling a big pipe that’s been cut in half. It is built up on each side with a snow ramp, allowing the rider to go up one side, do a trick (called a hit), then come down and go back up the other side for another maneuver; all the while he is working his way through the pipe. The early pipes were sometimes just rough mounds of snow. Now they are constructed with more precision, are more uniform, and there are more of them.
Someone who wants to learn the halfpipe on a snowboard should skateboard as well. “It’s a natural crossover. It has a lot to do with balance, so if you want to compete in the pipe you should skateboard, especially if there is no snow all year round. With a skateboard, you can practice any time.
I had a skateboarding background and more or less learned myself. Now it’s easier to get some instruction at a snowboarding camp or at a resort. Basically, a newcomer should just get in there and get the feel of the pipe. Work it back and forth until you get a sense of your edges. Don’t think about aerials or about grabbing the board. First learn to work your way back and forth and up and down the sides.
Step one is to learn to work the pipe and the walls. Just get in there and carve the walls. Slowly work your way higher and higher. Get the feel of going up and down and try to be as smooth as you can. Eventually, you reach the point where you can get air. But don’t rush it. It took me a long time to become smooth and the people who are the smoothest work their way up faster.
A newcomer to the pipe must learn the basic turn right away. You can’t go up one side of the pipe unless you know how to turn and come back down. If you are going up the wall while facing down the pipe, that is called the frontside wall. Because you unweight (shift your weight up and forward) as you start up the wall, the board will be on the toe-edge. Turn your head and shoulders back toward the bottom of the pipe and your body will follow. You can then shift your weight back and pivot or almost make a little hop-turn with the board. It’s a technique you can also practice on the ground.
Going up the backside wall (your body facing where you started the pipe), the technique is almost the same. Turn your head and shoulders into the turn, shift your weight back and pivot the tail end of the board. You can pivot the tail or do a little hop-turn.
To simply ride the walls of the pipe, keep your body low (bent at the knees) and centered over the board. Staying low keeps your weight centered and makes your ride smoother. You kind of pump up the walls much as you do in skateboarding. Riders will get real low as they come down one side, then quickly unweight during the transition, straightening their legs and shifting their weight from the rear to the front as they go up the wall. So it’s really a matter of learning to weight and unweight quickly and efficiently.
After a new rider can work the pipe, go from wall to wall smoothly, and reach the top with no problem, then he is ready to catch air. That’s the first step to becoming a halfpipe competitor. Once a rider is in the air, there’s no limit to the number of tricks and stunts he can do.
Some maintains that snowboard halfpipe is an imitative sport. It’s so much like skateboarding that snowboarders always grab their board during aerials even though their feet are strapped in with bindings. Skateboarders grab the board to keep it from falling away and to keep themselves from wiping out. While some snowboarding aerials are done without the hand touching the board, the board-grab is part of most of them and probably the best way to learn.
Once you can smoothly reach the top of the wall it’s time to go one step further. Work up to the speed you want. After you unweight to start driving up the wall, bend at the knees once again. When the nose of the board is at the top of the wall, flex your knees and unweight with a slight forward lean. This strong movement should take you up and out of the pipe.
The first things you must learn are the simple frontside air and backside air. These are the simplest ways to turn and return to the pipe. The frontside air is a turn in the direction your feet are facing. If you go up the left wall with your feet facing the end of the pipe you’ll make your frontside air to the right.
Once you’re in the air, compress your body, bringing your legs up by bending at the knees. Then reach down with your left arm and grab the right side of the board between your feet. This movement will begin the body pivot that will result in a turn. Follow the grab by quickly pivoting your hips and shoulders to the right, in the direction of the turn.
As you feel the board turning and beginning to return to the surface, release the grab and extend your legs. As you land, bend at the knees once more and ride the board down. Now you are in position to pump and unweight, which will drive you up the other side of the wall.
The backside air is just the opposite, but with a slight variation. This time you’ll be turning right but with your feet pointing left. As you come out of the pipe you don’t reach across your body. Instead, reach down with the right hand and grab the board up closer to the nose. Then pivot your body—head, shoulders, and hips—to the right. The landing and trip back down the pipe is the same as with the frontside air.
Practice these two basic aerials until you are totally comfortable with them and can do them with ease, working the pipe from side to side. From there, you can begin to perfect your own halfpipe routine. Then you’ll be ready to compete.
Following are a group of sample aerials that are basic to halfpipe routines. Don’t try these until you truly feel you are ready. Watch experienced half-pipe riders do them. Learn their techniques, how they handle the board, and coordinate their body movements. Keep practicing the basics and slowly build on them. Doing it step by step will keep your confidence at a high level and also lessen the chance of injury.
Many of the aerials are named by the way the grab is made. For example, there are a number of frontside aerials that are very similar to one another; there is just a slight variation in style. If you grab the board with your front hand (the hand closest to the nose of the board) on the toe-side of the board and bone out (straighten at the knee) your front leg, the aerial is called a melancholy. If you grab the board between your legs on the heelside with your front hand and with your leg boned out, it’s called a chicken salad.
When you reach down with your back hand in between your heels and bone out your back foot, the air is called a stalefish. If you do the same thing but make it a backside turn, then it’s a freshfish. On both these aerials, boning out the back foot will thrust the board out also, turning the rider sideways in the air before landing back on the surface.
Another turn is called an indy. On this one you simply grab the board between your toes with your back hand and bone out your front foot. A frontside air with both legs boned out straight is appropriately called a stiffie air. Each of these turns is different in the way the rider contorts his body and where he grabs the board. The style with which he does them is taken into consideration by the judges during a contest.
There are many other tricks a pipe rider can do. Many riders like to do spins in the air, going as far as 540s (one and a half 360-degree turns) and 720s (two 360-degree turns). It takes a lot of practice to do these. It’s difficult to get that rotation, keep it under control and grab the board. In fact, sometimes you can get more of a spin without grabbing the board.
If you do a frontside turn by coming back down to the surface backward, that’s called an air-to-fakie. From there, you turn from the fakie, doing a half-cab, and come down the pipe facing forward once again.
Halfpipe contests do not allow flips or inverted aerials, such as the McTwist, one of the most spectacular tricks in skateboarding. The only way a rider can do an inverted aerial is if he plants one hand on the rim, or top, of the pipe. These handplant aerials are also similar to skateboarding. Riders must have good upper-body strength and gymnastic ability to do these.
Using a handplant is the only way the board is allowed to extend straight up in the air. Otherwise, it can only turn out to the side. These stunts are difficult and take a lot of practice. Watch the experts, get some tips, then practice handplants without a board. Once you can do a handplant, then it’s time to try one in the pipe.
Most competitors in the pipe will all do the same or very similar tricks. Once again, almost all of them come from skateboarding, though some say that they can get higher out of the pipe and can do more things on their snowboards than they could when they was skateboarding.
A halfpipe routine is judged on the difficulty of the tricks, the style with which they are done, and the amount of air the competitor catches, as well as overall presentation. A competitor is usually in the pipe from thirty to sixty seconds, depending somewhat on the length of the pipe itself, which varies.
In shorter pipes, the competitor might get a chance to do six tricks, or hits, three on each side. But in a longer pipe there might be time for fourteen or fifteen hits. Competitors do not all have to do the same number of hits. Depending on how they work the pipe, some stay in longer than others. But since the pipe is graded downhill, no one can stay in there indefinitely. Natural forces won’t allow it.
Sometimes you have to give up more hits for the size of the aerial. The more of a downhill angle you take in the pipe, the mote speed you have to go higher. The shorter distance you go from hit to hit, the less speed and height. But you have more hits.
In most contests there are four halfpipe runs— a quarterfinal, semifinal, then two final runs. Half the competitors are eliminated in each heat. In the finals, they use the best of the two runs. In World Cup competition, the two runs in the finals both count, with a combined score.
There are generally five judges with a series of scores, similar to the judging in figure skating. In many contests, the high and low scores are dropped, and the three others are averaged. Because snowboarding is still a relatively new sport, there are often complaints about uniformity in judging. Now judges are being trained more closely. And as more former competitors become judges, a greater uniformity should come.
As you can see, halfpipe competition is intense. The competitors practice incessantly, trying to develop new tricks and perfect old ones. Shannon Dunn’s only concern is that some halfpipers might burn out by not enjoying the other disciplines in snowboarding.
Most of the pros are good freeriders. But some of the people who specialize in the pipe just aren’t that good on the mountain. They don’t spend enough time there. But I think the whole thing of snowboarding is to have fun freeriding. Even if you compete in the pipe, doing a lot of freeriding helps you with your stamina, your balance, and keeps you from getting burnt out. When I really start to miss freeriding I know I’m feeling signs of burnout. That’s when I know it’s time to go up the mountain.
That seems to be good advice. Even if halfpipe becomes your favorite discipline, try to make snowboarding a complete sport.