The Master Craftsman: Creating the Playground for the World’s Best Riders

Charles Beckinsale reflects on his self-taught career, his design process and the ins and outs of building parks for the top snowboarders on the planet.

Words: Xander

I have a lot of respect for Charles Beckinsale. Not only was he one of the best snowboarders in the country in his heyday, but his passion for the sport, the culture and the snowboarding industry is bigger than the piles of snow he pushes around.

Charles is a craftsman, but not your standard cabinet maker or stone mason – he’s responsible for building what many of the top riders in the world consider the best snowboard jumps on the planet.

What I find interesting about Charles and his profession is that you can’t just go to TAFE or university, come out with a qualification in snowboard park building and go to work – Charles created his own trade after many, many years of sketching, raking, riding, testing and refining take offs, features and landings. As a man who truly understands the product he’s creating, because he tests them himself, he’s created a unique, self-taught career that now supports his family.

The outcome is that he is a highly sought after professional, responsible for creating the playground for the world’s top riders. International snowboard teams will call Charles specifically, fly him to the other side of the world to push snow around for their riders to train on. He’s worked with Olympians, built features for the most renowned film crews in the world and created one of the world’s best training facilities in Switzerland that now occupies the majority of his time.

I was curious why the best riders in the world choose his creations specifically over others. What is it about his piles of snow that are so perfect? Is it the equipment he uses, his obsession with design, pure mathematics or is he just super easy to work with? What makes Charles Beckinsale such a master craftsman?

We spoke to him to find out.

Charles, thanks for taking the time to chat to us. First things first, where are you from and how did you get into snowboarding?

I am originally from Forster on the Mid North Coast, but Jindabyne has been home now for a very long time. I was introduced to snowboarding when my Mum decided to pack my sister and I up on the coast and come to Jindabyne to re-live her youth instructing for a season when I was 13.

When you meet people for the first time, what do you say you do for a living?

The answer to that changes a lot. I usually just say I’m a snow cat operator or groomer. I think it’s a bit hard to put into one word what I do.  

When did you first start building jumps – did you man the rake for years?

I started working in the terrain parks at 15, so about 24 years ago. The allure of working in the park was more about getting the chance to ride with the park crew at the time, people like Damon Hayler, an Aussie pro in the early 2000’s. I wasn’t in a cat then, the groomers would push us a pile of snow and we would hand shape a jump using scoops and shovels for the park. We would end up with a rolly landing with the smallest sweet spot. Then I got good at explaining to the cat drivers how to shape us better takeoffs and landings using the cat, then after years of polishing turds with a rake I finally got the chance to learn to operate and build the jumps myself, but that wasn’t until about 2006 in Lake Tahoe.

You were always into drawing and sketching – did that help shape your craft?

Yes, as a grom when I wanted to learn a new trick I would draw sequences of the trick, sketching out every part. Visualisation is so effective. Now I still sketch every big build I’m working on.

Do you always ask someone to explain their vision of a feature?

You are almost never on the same page until it’s on paper.

Dream it, design it, build it – Charles still sketches every project he builds on paper.

Does math come into building jumps? Velocity, trajectory, trigonometry – that kind of stuff?

Yes for sure. There is no one equation that will give you a perfect jump, length of the deck relates to the length of transition on the take off, the angle of the take off dictates the angle of the landing and the amount of step down also affects the angles of landings, it’s a jump builders job to marry this all together to make sure the jump works and is safe. There are so many variables when building a jump too, I work with engineers on scaffolding jumps for say a city big air.

Are you a good mathematician?

I do ok, but I also have a calculator on my phone haha

Why does it cost so much to build parks?

Well to start, a snowcat is worth upwards of $500K, resorts will often price a machine out over its lifetime and its roughly about $200 per hour to run plus insurances, wages and fuel. Then you’ve got snowmaking (there are not many parks that are able to be built without the help of snowmaking) earthworks, manufacturing of rails and boxes, Operator training and maintenance. General or public liability insurance is also a massive contributor to cost. As a contractor it costs me upwards of $40k a year for a global policy excluding the USA. That needs to be built into the cost of building. Lack of operator training and inefficiency are probably a major cause of blow out costs building parks.

Is shaping jumps profitable?

For a resort, yes I think so. Having jumps sells passes and effectively puts bums on chairs in resorts. For me as a builder it’s not so much the shaping of jumps that’s profitable, it’s everything that comes with it. Media opportunities, training opportunities and events. If you are good at what you do and can create a demand for your work anything can be profitable.

Photo: Dean Blotto Gray

It seems like resort management is often hard to deal with to get things over the line – why do you think that is?

I think over the years, resort management have had their trust misplaced in park builders pitching big extravagant builds that don’t provide a return or align with their day-to-day guests and operations.  Resorts are a business and a business needs to see a return whether that is monetary or in a form of marketing outcomes. Parks can be major drivers of snowsports school programs, so aligning with those needs and the general customer needs before trying to get the big stuff across the line is a great way of building trust and participation in park from the ground up. Ultimately management wants what park builders want and that’s busy, popular parks.

You have a lot of international teams asking you to build for them. Why do you think that is?

I was lucky enough in the earlier years to work with Torstein Horgmo and my brother in law Russ Henshaw on some pretty great film projects, at this time both were pushing hard and were the first to do lots of tricks. I think other athletes and teams saw the trust they put in me to build them what they needed. National teams came on board a little later, I had been working closely with the Canadian team while working on Blackcomb, and it turned into me being able to travel with the team building slopestyle courses and big air jumps for events or training. I think other teams noticed the trust being put in me and the outcomes for Canada snowboard were so positive that the other teams wanted a piece of that.

You sort of created your own profession – would you agree?

Yes, I set out to learn everything about parks, steel fabrication, marketing and business. Having a political mind I found ways to work within systems to achieve goals. I finally got to a point where I realised I didn’t have to work for resorts to be able to do what I wanted to do and that was a huge turning point for me. But you can’t get to a point where you can work for yourself without putting in the hard work with resorts, using their machines and resources to sharpen your skills. Unlike doing a trade or a degree there is no course or timeline or guarantee at the end that you’ll have a career. I guess it’s a lot like being a creative, you’re talented, you need to have good relationships and networks to do well. If you are sitting there waiting for a resort to pay you what you think your worth you will be old and disappointed. I’m a firm believer that if you are truly passionate and dedicated to any field that money becomes a by-product of that, but if you do something for the money you become jaded before you achieve being worth the money.

Do you always test your product? Have you ever built a dud and needed to do a re-build?

Yes, but now I’m 38 years old I shy away from going first and anything bigger than 60ft. I’ve never built something that was a total fail – but I’ve built some stuff I wasn’t happy with and most of the time that comes down to snow conditions and having to compromise on your original idea.

Can you explain what Stomping Grounds is – how did that come about?

The best way to describe Stomping Grounds is bringing together the best snowboarders and skiers to crowdfund a private park and pipe on a glacier in October each year. I guess it came about as I had a lot of interest from riders wanting training opportunities that resorts couldn’t or wouldn’t build, so I set out to find somewhere we could do something for everyone to be a part of.

Charles testing his creation in Saas Fee. Photo: Dean Blotto Grey

What do you think of the parks in Australia right now?

Aus in in a good place. There is a lot of passion in all of the crews. There is healthy competition between resorts to offer a good park product and that’s what snowboarding needs to keep thriving. Resorts definitely need to invest in operator training and ways to retain talented park staff. Ensuring efficiency and financial viability of parks and pipe programs. Australia is so lucky to have a healthy park scene in every resort.

You recently built a mini pipe – the first one in a long time – are mini pipes the future?

Yes the first pipe I’ve ever built, same for Brandon Poot another builder at Thredbo who I worked with on the mini pipe, I had never run a Zaugg (pipe cutter) before, I watched pipes being built so often and had the chance to pick both [pipe shapers] Jeremy Carpenter and Frank Wells’ brains on how to make this pipe a reality here at home. Mini Pipes are fun for every kind of rider, you’ve got kids, adults, pros, everyone lining up to have some fun. They are also a pipe that can be built without major infrastructure and huge amounts of snow – so yes I’m sure we will see more mini pipes popping up, Mini pipes are for everyone.

What has been your favourite project to work on?

The Stomping Grounds sessions for sure. Because the concept at the start seemed so insane. To rent a chunk of glacier somewhere, rent cats to build whatever we wanted seemed so unattainable. And the fact that it works out year after year now blows me away. I’ve watched snowboarding history be made on that glacier multiple times, from Mark McMorris’s Quad cork 18, Ayumu Hirano’s first landed triple in a half pipe, there is definitely really big energy there when everyone comes together, just looking around you and seeing you’re surrounded by the best of the best and then the future of snowboarding all riding together. It can often be quite surreal.

Are they called jumps, kickers, booters or all of the above?

You can run them all. I pretty much just use ‘jump’ though.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen go down on one of your creations?

Torstein Horgmo riding the Hip we built in Blue Cow for his movie Shredtopia, I’ve never seen anyone go that high in all my life. It didn’t seem real. He was a god that day.

Who would you say are your customers?

Individual riders like Mark McMorris, Ayumu Hirano, Shaun White, Torstein Horgmo, Bobby Brown, Scotty James, companies like Monster and Red Bull, advertising and media companies, teams and national teams.

What’s the difference between a good park jump and backcountry jumps?

A good park jump you can get lots of reps, you’re not limited to how many times you can hit it.  A backcountry jump you might get max 6 hits then the landing is toast. A park jump is usually true table, with nice big transitions. Whereas most backcountry jumps are big step downs with small hand stacked take offs.

You now take your family on the road with you for work – that has to be pretty cool?

Yes, we spend a good chunk of time travelling together, the Swiss Alps and Canada are favourites. It’s really cool seeing the world through our son’s eyes. Now he’s in school Amy and Cole spend a lot more time at home in Jindabyne.

Charles and his son Cole – wonder if Cole will follow in his Dad’s footsteps? Photo: Chris Witwicki

Any big projects coming up this year?

We are hosting the US and Canadian Snowboard teams here at Thredbo for some jump time. We’ve leased a Prinoth Cat to do the build and offer sled laps. It’s just a way to offer a premium product without impacting the day to day running of park programs.

Do you have any advice for kids trying to get into shaping?

Try to get a start with the day crew, spend a few seasons on a rake, ride a lot, then try get a start as a snowcat operator, do your time grooming runs so you can learn the machine and then transition into park grooming. No point going into the park until you can confidently operate a snow cat. Otherwise you’ll just make a mess. Watch all the park clips, keep up with current riding and have lots of ideas for features. Be open to constructive criticism and feedback and don’t take it personally.

Stay out of the bars and off the bad shit that clouds your head in ski towns that’s takes away from your riding and what your trying to achieve.

Follow Charles and his creations at @charlesbeckinsale


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