Sunday, May 19, 2024

Breaking down barriers to park riding with Joey Leppien at Okemo

Joey Leppien and his favorite heavy machinery. Photo by Ryland West

A ski resort’s terrain parks and halfpipe features can vary greatly from season-to-season and even day-to-day, but the deciding factor in their quality is definitely the brains that decide what they’ll look like in the first place. Less than a month ago, Joey Leppien, 27, took the reins at Okemo as terrain park manager. Originally from Midland, Michigan, Leppien and assistant park manger Devon McCluskey have been painting, drilling, welding and planning in hopes of making the Ludlow resort even more of a freestyle destination this winter.

Leppien has spent nearly a decade working on different park crews, including his most recent stint at Boreal’s Woodward Tahoe park, before shifting his focus to ironwork projects ranging from bridge-building in the Midwest to assembling rocket launchers in Florida. When the opportunity to head up the terrain park and halfpipe program at Okemo arose this season, Leppien decided to put down his wrench and torch and get back to his true passion.

While snowboarders are patiently waiting for winter, Leppien has been busy preparing for the season, and took some time out of his schedule to share what’s in store once the snow flies.

When park building and trees collide! Photo by Ryalnd West

What’s your background that makes you qualified for the terrain park manager job?

I’m not qualified for it (laughs). I’ve been working in parks for about 10 years now, more or less. I built a lot of stuff all over the country, but spent most of my time at Boreal Mountain, Woodward, Tahoe. Lots of cool events there. I think the iron worker aspect helps, with all the fab work and you know, team leadership and stuff like that, but really just building parks all over the place.

How long have you been an ironworker? What does that job entail?

There’s a few different aspects to it. Essentially it’s structural steel erection. You can be a rigger, who hooks it all up to the crane. You can be a connector who puts the steel in place when the crane brings it in. You can be a welder, you can be a bolt-up, just stuffing bolts in. You can be an inspector. I did pretty much everything, I bounced all over the place.

Parents generally don’t encourage their children to work on poles, but this is different.

Is it true that you worked on Jeff Bezos’ spaceship?

From the ground the last piece of steel! I was working in Ohio on a bridge job with my brother Bob, and my younger brother Tommy had worked with one of the project foremen that was going to be doing that launch pad. So he got all of us down there. That would’ve been fall of 2019 and I ended up being there until February 2021. It was a long time. That was a sick one, there were rockets going off all the time next door at SpaceX and NASA and what not. It was crazy because when I got there there was maybe one steel structure in the air and it was kind of just a maybe 50-foot-tall building, and when we left there were two 700-foot towers, a full launchpad, and the airplane hangar where they’re going to build the rockets.

What’s the difference between doing ironwork and working on snowboard parks? 

There’s a lot of differences. I definitely prefer the mountain aspect of everything, that’s where my real passion is. I am definitely passionate about the ironwork, but when I was working at that job and I came up here for a tour at Okemo, I had that fire in my chest again that I hadn’t felt in years, and that was kinda how I knew I had to take it. The iron work stuff is great and I’ve worked with a lot of really awesome people and on a lot of really cool projects, but none of them really gave that fire that I got at Okemo.

This photos was taken at Boreal, but it COULD BE Okemo because carves have to geographic limitations. photo: Ryland West

This is your first time in Vermont. What do you think about Vermont so far?

I love it. I actually just learned that latitudinally, I’m a quarter mile south of my hometown right now. Isn’t that wild? So I’m pretty much home, just 1,000 miles east. But I love it here, it reminds me a lot of Northern Michigan. All the rolling hills and the trees and the color and the weather. There’s still a disbelief that Michigan is beautiful, which I like, because people won’t flock there when everything else goes to hell. (laughs) Everyone is flocking to Vermont or Colorado, and nobody thinks of Michigan as a destination. That’s how Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, they all are. People don’t realize how pretty they are.

What’s on the docket for this season at Okemo? I heard there’s going to be a ski-through covered bridge?

Yeah, that’s not even really a park thing. That’s something we’re doing for beginner terrain for Toyota — we’re making a Vermont covered bridge, which I believe they’re going to use in the summer time to mountain bike through, too. I remember when I was in middle school my good friend Adam Maxwell used to go to Okemo every spring break and I remember 15 years ago, being like, I gotta go out there! So it’s wild that I’m now running the park crew, especially considering I’ve never even ridden there. Devon and I have a lot of big ideas this winter that I think we’re going to execute pretty well.

Will Devon and Joey recreate this magic moment on the East Coast? Only time will tell. Photo: Ryland West

There’s been a lot of talk about staffing shortages at ski areas. Have you had trouble with that?

No, not really. We’ve got no concern about our ability to run the park program and do it well and get it going. But we’re always happy to hear from some people. If anybody reaches out and wants to join the team we’re happy to chat and see if we can’t make something happen.

What’s working park crew like?

I think the common misconception is that you just snowboard all day and every once in a while push a rake, but it’s hard work. It’s long days. A storm comes in and you’re digging out features. You’re in the cold and spending long hours on builds. But it got me to move across the country in my ’96 Monte Carlo when I was 19 years old to Lake Tahoe. It pulled me out of the iron work and back here, so there’s gotta be something special about it. It’s long, hard work, but the benefit is always there if you’re passionate about it.

How long have you been driving a snow cat?

I’ve been operating a snow cat overall maybe 4 or 5 years , but I haven’t actually been in a cat for 3 years. I really hope I get to. I am looking forward to pushing snow around this winter, I want to spend most of my time in a cat, building and grooming, because I miss it so much.

Okemo’s halfpipe ihas churned out many legends and Joey will help the next generation this season, and maybe catch some air while he’s at it! Photo: Ryland West

There’s obviously no snow yet, so what have you been working on so far?

We’ve been doing a lot of collaborating with our corporate partners and getting our plans ready for the winter. We’ve been helping a lot with the new chairlifts that have gone in, there are two new lifts. We’re repainting all of our rails and cleaning ‘em up. We have 15 new rails that Lane (Knaack) made for us, we’ve been painting those and fixing up others. We’ve got a real good fleet this winter.

What are you personally most looking forward to this season?

First off, I’m really looking forward to getting back into a cat, and just romping around on the mountain. I think Okemo’s got crazy potential and I think we can make some really cool stuff happen this winter, and get the community involved in it. One of the big things I’ve learned is versatility in parks. Breaking down that barrier of entry. Back in the day, when you were a young kid trying to learn parks, it was terrifying. Either the features were all big or all the people riding there were just intimidating. But I really learned out west to build those versatile parks with a low barrier of entry. Features that an experienced rider can rip on, but a young person can also go through and figure it out and have fun. Kinda bringing some of that West coast feel that’s been happening lately to the East coast, and I’m excited to bring that to Okemo.

When you hang on the side of a building for work, riding a little hard pack seems way less scary.


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