Local snowboarder Patrick Redding testing the bag on Tuesday. (Photo: Horowitz)
They say it’s never a good idea to go into business with your friends, but maybe when it comes to snowboarders, that rule just doesn’t apply.
“Our goal is to create the most realistic environment to learn on, and essentially to fall on,” said Katal Innovations co-owner Stephen Slen. The 25-year old Engineer, along with colleague Aaron Coret, 26, co-invented well…humongous bags of air, along with the managing help of friend and lead operator, Ryan Regehr, 24.
If you’ve been on the mountain recently you may have noticed the colossal white air bag drooped over a huge jump adjacent to Chair 3. Referred to as the Katal Landing Pad, the concept is simple, go off a jump with no regard for your health and plop down on a giant cushy landing pad. The thing that sets it apart from a mere foam pit, flat airbag or a pile of leaves, is that you can actually ride away from it if you happen to land on your feet.
The idea seems easy enough, but the concept for the landing pad was something that was born as a college engineering project at the University of British Columbia. “We always had the idea in the back of our heads,” said Slen, “but it wasn’t until Aaron’s accident that we really decided to go for it,” he adds, referring to a snowboarding accident that left (now co-owner) Aaron Coret with a severe spinal injury, paralyzing him from the neck down.
“He was one of those guys that always ripped on a snowboard, it was one of those freak things that just happened.”
After the accident, Coret was in rehab and Slen proposed the concept to his professors as a design project. With a $500 grant from the school combined with his life savings and some help from their respective families, they put together a prototype pad in a sail shop located in Vancouver. After about a month, they had a workable prototype and held their first test session on Blackcomb glacier in Whistler, BC. The following season they built a scaled-up prototype (50 ft. wide and 90 ft. long) and hosted Katal’s first public event at Lake Louise Ski area in the Albertan Rockies.
In November 2009, they got a phone call. A production company in Vancouver calls up Coret and said they’ve heard of this landing pad and asked for a meeting. Not knowing what the meeting was even about, Regher takes it. After filling out about 25 minutes of confidential paperwork, a guy in a suit shows Regeher a picture of a snowboarder jumping through the Olympic rings. “Right then, I knew what they were looking for, and the company wasn’t even really going. None of us were even full-time.” In fact, Slen at the time, was doing side work as a Field Engineer on the Sea-to-Sky highway for the 2010 Olympics, “That meeting was the catalyst that really jump-started the company,” claims Slen.
Essentially the Olympic executives wanted a pad that could support a snowboarder doing a 35 ft. drop and clearing a 30 ft. gap. “We dropped everything and moved into a hotel across the street from Olympic stadium,” Slen said. “We spent the next 21 days finishing up the landing pad and preparing for the opening ceremonies.”
Originally there were three snowboarders chosen to do the stunt, Shin Campos, Johnny Lyall and Kevin Sansalone (all acting as understudies for each other in case of an injury). When Sansalone caught an edge during the first practice sessions and broke his collar bone (not because of the pad but due to the artificial snow called Snowflex), it came down to a coin flip between Lyall and Campos. “We were standing right there,” claims Regehr, “the coin actually landed on the ground and rolled around on the floor, like in a movie or something.” The young up-and-comer Johnny Lyall won the toss along with the opportunity to participate in the only element of the opening ceremonies that involved a real physical risk.
“It was so intense,” admits Slen, “We were standing right next to the pad wearing our issued white puffys and white pants watching the whole thing go down and just sweating our a**es off. As soon as Lyall landed the jump we had 5 minutes to take it down before the athletes were going to enter the stadium,”
On top of the exposure of the opening ceremonies, the partners meanwhile had secured a landing pad to be set up at Vail, Colo. While Regehr and Slen were going back and forth from Vancouver, their buddy Gideon Bladgride manned the pad in Vail and some of the world’s top riders got a chance to see it up close, including Mammoth team skier Kristi Leskinen. With the help of Noah Brooks, the Director of the Freeride Team and Ski and Snowboard Clubs of Vail, the landing pad got a chance to spend an entire season in Colorado.
“I get a phone call one day from Travis Rice,” claims Slen “that was like…Hey Steve it’s Trav. Just wanted to rap out about setting up a date with you, me and your blow-up toy.” Rice got his date, and since then Quiksilver jumped on board to help the guys tour the landing pad.
After that, the company has had a couple of stops and now the guys and their giant “blow-up toy” are here in Mammoth due in part to Leskinen’s relentless hounding of Mammoth‘s Director of Youth Action Sports, Oren Tanzer.
Currently Mammoth Mountain is only renting the pad, but since it’s inauguration they’ve already sold out all of the landing pad’s camps and sold a substantial amount of day tickets. Mammoth Mountain has always been a leader in terrain parks as well as park safety and quality standards so naturally the $95,000 Katal Landing Pad is a perfect fit for Mammoth’s Unbound terrain parks. And Tanzer doesn’t deny it, “We’re happy so far. The camps were hugely successful, the weather was tough but besides that we’ve been bringing in the numbers we’ve expected.”
Though the landing pad has a hefty price tag, MMSA is still taking a look at it’s feasibility for next year, “We want the thing to obviously pay for itself,” stated Tanzer, “and we understand the possible PR value. It’s just that the logistics are tough. The tricky thing is maintaining it. It takes about six people to operate and keep it up. So, as of now we’re undecided.”
It may be absurd to think that Katal Innovations is still up-and-coming. Then again, maybe it’s unwise to underestimate a group of engineering snowboarders. “We don’t even really have an office, we’re just nomads,” Regehr said. But with a secured manufacturer in Los Angeles and a few more stops for the season the company is off and rolling. “We’re just trying to slang a bunch of pads,” Slen admits and, so far it seems like they probably will.
For more info on Katal check out www.katalinnovations.com. The Katal Landing Pad is open until May 31. For info on camps contact Ben Wisner at 760.934.2571 ext. 3144