Snow makers rescue big Sierra resorts as drought bakes smaller ones

Daniel Crandall monitors a fan gun snowmaking machine on the upper slopes at Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. The lack of rainfall this winter has left the tourism trade in the Lake Tahoe area in shambles as ski resorts struggle to survive without snow. (Daniel Crandall monitors a fan gun snowmaking machine on the upper slopes at Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. The lack of rainfall this winter has left the tourism trade in the Lake Tahoe area in shambles as ski resorts struggle to survive without snow. (Gary Reyes/San Jose Mercury News)

Daniel Crandall monitors a fan gun snowmaking machine on the upper slopes at Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. on Friday, Jan. 10. The lack of rainfall this winter has left the tourism trade in the Lake Tahoe area in shambles as ski resorts struggle to survive without snow. (Gary Reyes/San Jose Mercury News)

By Lisa M. Krieger
San Jose Mercury News

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — These are the unlikely saviors in the lofty peaks of the serene Sierra: high-tech snow machines, roaring like jets and spewing million-dollar crystals.

“If it wasn’t for snow making, we probably wouldn’t be open,” said Barrett Burghard, head snow maker at Heavenly Ski Resort, who is propping up the beleaguered mountain economy with his vast computer-driven complex of snow guns, pumps, compressors, pipes, hydrants, nozzles and miles of hoses.

Mother Nature, always fickle, has been especially cruel this drought year to the resorts and mountain communities that depend on snow for their economic survival. Instead of fluffy powder, there’s just granite, mud and manzanita.

So Burghard and other snow makers are fabricating winter where it isn’t.

As the eastern sky turns pink with dawn’s rising sun, his 165-gun system performs alchemy, mixing massive drafts of water, air and electricity to prepare 14 miles of bare ski runs for thousands of visitors. Every night, snowcat crews push piles of the precious product back up the slopes.

Innovations in technology — such as the $40,000 Super PoleCat, with a built-in automated weather station that alters man-made snow characteristics — make it possible to produce an acre of thigh-deep snow in an hour.

That’s enough to blanket a football field with snow 8 feet deep during a three-hour game.

In this dry and balmy winter, the small, historic and family-owned resorts without extensive snow making — such as Donner Ski Ranch or Dodge Ridge — haven’t opened, costing jobs and starving local businesses. The National Winter Trail Days event at Tahoe Donner Cross Country Ski and Snowshoe Center was canceled.

But big corporations running Heavenly, Northstar, Kirkwood, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows and Mammoth Mountain have made major investments in snow-making tools. Squaw Valley alone has spent $5.2 million since 2012. This month virtually all of the snow at the resorts came out of machines.

The goal is to survive not just dry years, but what could be a parched future.

“The larger resorts have the capital resources to do extensive snow making,” said Bob Roberts of the California Ski Industry Association.

At South Lake Tahoe’s Powder House, where equipment rentals have fallen from 120 to 60 a day due to lack of natural snow, technician Michael Breshears said “they have technology on their side, and Heavenly has by far the best snow making around.”

“It is the saving grace,” said skier Colleen Tanaka. Tracking California’s weather from her home in Hawaii, she says “we were a little bit bummed. It is a little disappointing. But thank goodness that Heavenly makes their own snow so we can still have a nice white winter.”

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When teaching kids to ski, it’s all about keeping it fun

A ski instructor coaches young Alex Faerber in a class for children at Mammoth Mountain. (AP photo by Fritz Faerber)

A ski instructor coaches young Alex Faerber in a class for children at Mammoth Mountain. (AP photo by Fritz Faerber)

By Fritz Faerber
Associated Press

A hard wind pelted exposed areas of our faces with tiny pellets of sleet and drove the 16-degree air through any chink in the ski gear covering my 4-year-old son Alex and me. He’d just fallen getting off a ski lift at Utah’s Brighton Ski Resort and I could see the tears welling up through the goggles.

Swift, decisive action was essential.

Minutes later, we were sharing a large hot chocolate, a plate of cheese fries and planning our afternoon away from the mountain. A full belly, time at the hotel pool and a nap rescued my future of skiing with my son from a miserable morning on the mountain.

“Let’s go to Snowbird,” he replied, referring to one of the ski resorts, when I asked if he wanted to ski or go into the city on the third day of our weeklong trip. Music to my ears.

I was determined to share my love of skiing with my son, but wondered if I was pushing it when I put him on the slopes at age 3. And since we live far from snowy mountains, I worried we wouldn’t get out often enough for it to take. But at 4, he showed mastery of the basics, and at 5, he can’t wait to go back.

For other parents out there wondering how to ignite a love of skiing in little ones, here are some tips on what worked for us.

First off, as most parents know, the kid is in charge. If he or she doesn’t want to learn, there is no amount of coaxing, bribing, pushing or fooling them into doing it.

With Alex, I made sure to promote a love of snow. The sporadic snowfalls in St. Louis, where we live, always result in snowmen, snow-gorillas and other unrecognizable sculptures in our front yard. In fact, we’ve even resorted to stealing the snow from all our neighbors’ yards, when the snowfall is too scanty for our own allotment to build anything of substance.

Much like Dad, Alex loves gear. Playing with this helped build excitement for skiing. At age 3 he started wearing ski goggles and helmet while riding in his car seat during winter time. Used skis and ski boots off eBay came cheap and meant he could get used to stomping around in the boots before we even left St. Louis.
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Technology helps Mt. Baldy ski area to combat water evaporation

Ron Ellingson, president of Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts Inc., holds one of the hollow plastic conservation balls produced by Glendora-based manufacturer XavierC LLC.

Ron Ellingson, president of Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts Inc., holds one of the hollow plastic conservation balls produced by Glendora-based manufacturer XavierC LLC.

By Sandra Emerson

Ron Ellingson will be watching the Mt. Baldy reservoir closely this ski season.

The 10-million-gallon reservoir is used to make snow during the ski season and like any body of water, succumbs to evaporation, but for Ellingson, president of Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts Inc., the evaporation means higher costs and less snow for skiers.

So, to keep costs down and provide more snow to visitors, Ellingson contracted with Glendora-based manufacturer XavierC LLC, to install hollow plastic conservation balls to reduce the evaporation.

“It really helps if we have a good ski season,” Ellingson said. “We depend on man-made snow right now, unless Mother Nature helps with a big storm.”

The company started delivering the balls in November, but due to the change in season, the rest will be delivered in the spring.

The balls are 4 inches in diameter and float along the top of the reservoir to reduce evaporation by up to 90 percent.

As the water level rises and lowers, the balls adjust by piling on top of each other or by spreading out across the surface. Water is pumped to the large reservoir from a smaller million-gallon reservoir that is filled from natural underground wells.

The use of the balls could save Ellingson about $10,000 a month in pumping costs and boost the production of the man-made snow they depend on for their ski runs.

“If we don’t have a full reservoir at the beginning of the year, we can’t cover all the runs and makes it so the skiing isn’t as good as it would be if we have them all covered,” Ellingson said.

The owner of XavierC LLC, Sydney Chase, approached Ellingson at the Mt. Baldy Lodge, which he owns, about the product. Chase has been visiting Mt. Baldy for 10 years and saw the need for her product.

“I knew it could help him and he really agreed, so we ended up getting as many (plastic conservation balls) as we could on before the big freeze and we will finish up in early spring,” Chase said. “He will be saving great amount of money by May, April of next year.”

The company has contracted with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to install $7 million to $8 million balls on its reservoirs.

“We’ve been approached by municipalities, water districts, we’ve been approached by several different ski resorts waiting and watching to see how Ron’s goes,” Chase said.

Snow Summit, Bear Mountain light up for New Year’s Eve

(Snow Summit photo)

The slopes at Snow Summit are all aglow for part of the resort’s New Year’s Eve celebration. (Snow Summit photo)

Ringing in the new will be an enlightening experience at Snow Summit, where the annual New Year’s Eve Torchlight Parade begins at 7 p.m. The parade is free and open to all ages for viewing.

It begins when more than 200 employees descend the mountain on skis and snowboards, each caring a torchlight. This amazing display illuminates the night sky and gives the mountain an astounding glow. After the parade, onlookers are encouraged to join Big Bear Mountain Resorts to help ring in the new year. Guests will have two parties to choose from, one at Snow Summit and one at Bear Mountain.

“The Snow Summit Torchlight Parade is an incredible New Year’s Eve tradition,” said Chris Riddle, vice president of marketing for Big Bear Mountain Resorts. “With two great parties this year following the parade, there’s no better place to spend New Year’s Eve than here at Bear Mountain and Snow Summit.”

At Snow Summit, guests can enjoy live music from DJ Slip Matt from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Slopeside Pub and can dance the night away with DJ Desi at the Bullwheel Bar. At Bear Mountain, partygoers can ring in the new year at The Scene Bar with live music by Club George. Both parties begin at 9 p.m. and end at 1 a.m., and will have specialty drinks, hors d’oeuvres, and a New Year’s Eve countdown.

The New Year’s Eve parties at Snow Summit and Bear Mountain are 21 and older only. Tickets are $25 for each party, and can be purchased at the door.

Information: www.snowsummit.com

Breckenridge gets second freeski, snowboarding Olympic qualifier event

By Jason Blevens
The Denver Post

Breckenridge is getting a second round of Olympic qualifier freeskiing and snowboarding.

The third stop of the Olympic qualifying season for slopestyle and halfpipe skiers and snowboarders — from Jan. 8-12 — is moving from California’s Northstar ski area to Breckenridge, which hosted the first stop of the season with its Dew Tour.

“We were looking forward to competing at Northstar but unfortunately Mother Nature isn’t cooperating at the moment,” said Mike Jankowski, coach of the U.S. Olympic snowboarding and freeskiing teams. “So going back to Breckenridge is really the next best thing. Their pipe and park are world class and we love competing in Breck. So it will all work out.”

Northstar ski area has a base of 18 inches, with only 213 acres of its 3,170 acres open. Breckenridge has a 32-inch base, with 1,432 acres of its 2,358 acres open. Colorado had a strong early start to the season and cold temperatures in November enabled speedy park and pipe construction. Bringing the Jan. 6-12 Grand Prix event back to Breckenridge gives Colorado its third Olympic qualifying week with the world’s top snowboarders and freeskiers competing in both slopestyle and halfpipe.

The International Ski Federation, or FIS, said in a statement that the move was based on Breckenridge’s contest-ready venue and warm weather at Northstar.

“Despite good quality snow conditions at Northstar, the region was not getting sufficiently cold temperatures for snowmaking teams to ensure the huge production of snow required for building a competition halfpipe and slopestyle venue,” read the statement.

Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, jblevins@denverpost.com or twitter.com/jasontblevins

 

Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows opening expanded terrain

Santa will be skiing the slopes at Squaw Valley this weekend before he boards his sleigh on Christmas Eve. (Squaw Valley photo)

Santa will be skiing the slopes at Squaw Valley this weekend before he boards his sleigh on Christmas Eve. (Squaw Valley photo)

Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows will both open expanded terrain this weekend, with the addition of Shirley Lake Express at Squaw Valley and Hot Wheels Chairlift at Alpine Meadows.

Shirley Lake Express is a high-speed, six pack chairlift on the upper mountain and is set to open on Saturday. The lift provides access to some of Squaw’s most beloved intermediate terrain. At Alpine, the Hot Wheels Chairlift will open for the season on Sunday. Hot Wheels gives skiers and riders access to tree-lined intermediate trails.

Both Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows are open top-to-bottom for skiing and riding. Squaw Valley currently has 12 lifts and 19 trails open, including Mountain Run, the longest run at the resort. Alpine Meadows has five lifts and 26 trails open, as well as Sandy’s Corner terrain park off the Roundhouse Chairlift.

In addition to great skiing and riding, both Squaw and Alpine have a full schedule of festive happenings this holiday season including Santa on the slopes, free Ski with Jonny Moseley days, New Year’s Eve fireworks, and a torchlight parade. Click here for a full list of holiday events.

Mammoth Mountain: The resort that Dave built celebrates a milestone

While no longer under the leadership of its founder,
the Eastern Sierra getaway is still going strong at 60

Mammoth Mountain’s original warming hut, which opened in 1953, was nicknamed “The Pit.” In part of the design, Dave McCoy incorporated a downward-pointing arrow, using black rocks from Westgard Pass, to show skiers that this was the place to be, according to the book “Tracks of Passion” by Robin Morning. (Photo courtesy Mammoth Mountain Ski Area)

Then: Mammoth Mountain’s original warming hut, which opened in 1953, was nicknamed “The Pit.” In part of the design, Dave McCoy incorporated a downward-pointing arrow, using black rocks from Westgard Pass, to show skiers that this was the place to be, according to the book “Tracks of Passion” by Robin Morning. (Photos courtesy Mammoth Mountain Ski Area)

By Jerry Rice

Mammoth Mountain.

The name says everything a skier or snowboarder needs to know about a resort with some of the country’s most desirable terrain, spread across 3,500 acres and reaching an elevation of 11,053 feet.

But for many veterans of this place, it’s more affectionately known as “Dave’s Mountain.” That’s in deference to Dave McCoy, the legendary founder of the ski area that this winter is celebrating its 60th anniversary.

Dave McCoy, founder of the Mammoth Mountain ski resort, on the slopes likely in the 1980s.

Dave McCoy, founder of the Mammoth Mountain ski resort, on the slopes likely in the 1980s.

McCoy, who was born in 1915 in El Segundo, has been in the area since 1935 when the freshly minted high school grad landed in the nearby hamlet of Independence. He started earning money as a soda jerk — the same job he was working when he met his future wife, Roma Carriere — and saved up to buy his first Harley-Davidson.

In 1937, McCoy wanted to set up a rope tow on McGee Mountain, just off Highway 395 south of Mammoth. He used his motorcycle as collateral for an $85 loan to get parts for the device, which was powered by the motor from a Ford Model A truck. Eager skiers paid 50 cents to be pulled up the hill, and a business was born.

Soon, McCoy found work as a hydrographer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, sometimes in the winter skiing 50 miles a day to measure snow depths so officials could predict how much water would be available in the spring and summer.

“I enjoyed being outdoors all the time,” said the 98-year-old in a recent phone interview. “You enjoy life a lot more if you’re doing what you want to do.”

When the Forest Service sought bids to build a full-fledged resort in the area, McCoy used his knowledge of snowfall and snowpack trends and picked what he thought would be a prime location. In 1953, he was awarded a permanent permit to operate Mammoth Mountain. He built a warming hut that summer, and by November, shortly after the birth of their sixth child, McCoy told Roma he was quitting his job to put all of his energies into building the ski area.

Much of McCoy’s story — which is intertwined with that of the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area and the town of Mammoth Lakes — is documented in “Tracks of Passion,” written by local historian Robin Morning. In snippets of text and lots of vintage photos and illustrations, it captures the challenges McCoy et al. needed to overcome to turn a stunning mountain in a remote area into what has become a world-class destination.

More recently, that transformation included the 2003 opening of a four-story, pedestrian-oriented shopping and condominium complex, the Village at Mammoth, and then McCoy’s decision in 2005 to sell his controlling interest in the company to Starwood Capital Group for $365 million — one of the highest prices ever paid for a ski resort at that time.

Mammoth Mountain’s Main Lodge today offers all of the amenities that skiers and snowboarders have come to expect – apparel and gift shops, equipment rentals and demos, restaurants and other diversions. (Photo by Peter Morning)

Now: Mammoth Mountain’s Main Lodge today offers all of the amenities that skiers and snowboarders have come to expect – apparel and gift shops, equipment rentals and demos, restaurants and other diversions. (Photo by Peter Morning)

What makes Mammoth such a special place? Ask McCoy, and his answer is simple and direct: “The snow and the mountain.”

For many, if not most, of the 1.3 million skiers and snowboarders who frequent the resort every winter, that truly is the long and short of it.

Others may point to the fact that Mammoth Lakes is essentially a 4.5-square-mile island in the middle of hundreds of thousands of acres of undeveloped public lands. That’s a big part of the appeal for Jack Copeland, president of the Mammoth Lakes Chamber of Commerce.

“There’s no urban or suburban sprawl here,” he said. “We don’t have a cute little 19th century mining town because the ones we did have burned down in the 19th century. What we have now is close proximity to unspoiled wilderness and fabulous weather — great for summer and for winter.”

It likely will remain that way since much of the region is national forests, national parks and property overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The DWP also is a huge player, after it bought up nearly all of the land in the Owens Basin and the accompanying water rights that stretch essentially to the foot of Mammoth Mountain.

So, in effect, one outcome of the California water wars of the early 1900s is that the region around Mammoth Lakes will never get built up like many other winter destination communities, such as the ones along Interstate 70 in Colorado or those in the vicinity of Park City, Utah.

That, Copeland adds, is a good thing.

“I know a lot of people who like Park City, but the main attraction at a lot of those other big resorts is not about skiing, it’s about retail, frankly,” he said. “We really specialize in outdoor wilderness and mountain experiences. That’s who Mammoth is for — people who want to be close to the mountains and either actively participate in recreational activities or want to relax and enjoy the view.”

It’s the same outdoors, and the same mountain, that Dave McCoy embraced all those years ago.

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5 RESORTS: NEW ON THE SLOPES

Ski and snowboard resorts invested big during the off-season. Here are highlights from five California locations. For information about resorts throughout the state, visit www.dailynews.com/travel and www.insidesocal.com/snow.

Bear Mountain
43101 Goldmine Drive, Big Bear Lake
909-866-5766, www.bearmountain.com
• What’s new: For snowboarders, the Red Bull Plaza has been revamped and now includes a city-inspired parking structure, billboard wall ride, Dumpsters, close-out rails and a multi-use object called the City Center.
• Social connections: @Bear_Mountain, www.facebook.com/BearMtn

Mountain High
24510 Highway 2, Wrightwood
888-754-7878, www.mthigh.com
 What’s new: A Rossignol Experience Center, expanded Children’s Sports Center and new snow cats and terrain features are among the more than $1 million in improvements. The current snow-making system is 30 percent more efficient than it was a decade ago, allowing the resort to make more snow than ever using fewer resources.
• Social connections: @mthigh, www.facebook.com/mthigh

Snow Summit
880 Summit Blvd., Big Bear Lake
909-866-5766, www.snowsummit.com
• What’s new: Big Bear Mountain Resorts, which owns this property and Bear Mountain, has invested more than $12 million to improve snow-making capabilities at both resorts in the past few years.
• Social connections: @Snow_Summit, www.facebook.com/SnowSmt

June Mountain
3819 Highway 158, June Lake
888-586-3686, www.junemountain.com
• What’s new: The resort returns after a one-winter hiatus with on-mountain experiences suited for all levels, especially families and entry-level skiers and snowboarders. The Mammoth Mountain MVP season pass also includes free access to the slopes at June.
• Social connections: @JuneMountain, www.facebook.com/JuneMountain

Mammoth Mountain
10001 Minaret Road, Mammoth Lakes
800-626-6684, www.mammothmountain.com
• What’s new: The 60th anniversary season brings with it many improvements, including a $700,000 renovation of the Mammoth Mountain Inn and the debut of the Underground Lounge nightclub with space for live music. Kids are sure to enjoy the upgrades to the Unbound Playgrounds and Adventure Zones, part of which will have a Sesame Street West theme. Top skiers and snowboarders will come to town for pre-Olympic training at Mammoth before heading off to Sochi for the Winter Games. The Sprint U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix, Jan 18-19, will conclude with the announcement of the 2014 Olympic Snowboarding Team for halfpipe and the new Olympic event of slopestyle.
• Social connections: @MammothMountain  www.facebook.com/MammothMountain,
www.youtube.com/user/MammothMTNOfficial

Alpine Meadows about to join Squaw Valley and open top to bottom

The skiing has been nothing short of spectacular at Squaw Valley, where this photo was taken Dec. 7 by Jeff Engerbretson. (Squaw Valley photo)

The skiing has been nothing short of spectacular at Squaw Valley, where this photo was taken on Dec. 7 by Jeff Engerbretson. (Squaw Valley photo)

Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows will both be open top to bottom starting Friday. At Alpine Meadows, it will be the resort’s opening day for the season.

There will be five lifts and seven groomed trails open at Alpine, where skiers and riders can purchase reduced-priced lift tickets for $59. All proceeds from lift ticket sales will benefit the Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows Foundation as part of Alpine’s Ski Team Scholarship Day.

Squaw Valley, Alpine’s sister resort near Lake Tahoe, is open top to bottom with 10 lifts and 21 runs, including Mountain Run, the longest run at Squaw. This weekend, both Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows will roll out the Learn to Ski and Ride Special. Beginner skiers and riders at both mountains can purchase a beginner lift ticket, equipment rentals, and a half-day lesson for $49.

“We are so excited to offer skiers and riders top-to-bottom access at both of our legendary resorts,” said Cara Whitley, chief marketing officer for Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. “From first-timers to those simply looking to support a good cause, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows have a great weekend on tap for those of every ability level.”

Big-air snowboarding, high-stakes poker combine in Heavenly competition

The cards were dealt, the bets were placed and the top three snowboarders took home the jackpot. Chas Guldemond, Gjermund Braaten and Eric Willett, the three podium winners from the inaugural Heavenly High Roller Hold ‘Em, return to the competition on Saturday, April 5, 2014, to defend their titles.

In partnership with Snow Park Technologies, High Roller Hold ‘Em combines the thrill of big air snowboarding with the strategy of high-stakes poker.

This time, the stakes are even higher, with the overall winner receiving a 2015 X Games Big Air event exemption, meaning that the top finisher at High Roller Hold ‘Em will gain automatic entrance into the X Games and will not be subject to meeting the qualification-criteria that the remainder of the field will be assessed under.

“The eagerness of these top athletes to re-join the competitive lineup for High Roller Hold ‘Em is a testament to the unique format of the event,” said Pete Sonntag, vice president and chief operating officer of Heavenly. “The combo of tricks these snowboarders throw down is in the cards. There is no scripted routine, and they have no idea what combo they will be given. They can be dealt a trick they haven’t even practiced or pulled off in years, and that’s what makes High Roller Hold ‘Em one of the edgiest, most entertaining events. It’s anyone’s jackpot to win.”

Returning High Roller Hold ‘Em champ, Guldemond, 26, is a Tahoe local looking to defend his title. He placed third in Slopestyle at the 2013 Burton US Open, fourth in Slopestyle at the 2013 X Games Tignes, first at the 2013 Copper Grand Prix in Slopestyle, and second in Slopestyle at the 2012 Dew Tour.

“I am so stoked to bet on my skills again this year at the High Roller Hold Em,” said Guldemond. “Cards, sunsets and hometown fans – it does not get any better.”

Second place finisher at High Roller Hold ‘Em, Braaten, 23, won the first Slopestyle event of the 2012 Winter Dew Tour in Breckenridge, placed sixth in Slopestyle at the 2013 X Games Tignes and was eighth in Slopestyle at the 2013 X Games Aspen. He also placed third at the Toyota Big Air 2013 and fourth in the Big Air Moscow.

Willett, 25, placed third at the inaugural High Roller Hold ‘Em and has a collection of four X Games Snowboard Slopestyle medals to his name. He took first at the 2013 Air & Style event in Innsbruck with a switch backside 1260 mute.

During the event, High Roller Hold ‘Em competitors will be dealt three cards per hand with each card featuring different tricks based on the face value of the card. From there, each rider will discard two cards, and bet accordingly on the final card in their hand. Once all bets are in, the riders who haven’t folded will head to the top of the big air jump, where the rider who lands the trick with the highest level of difficulty will win the round and qualify for the $50,000 super final.

High Roller Hold ‘Em, which will take place on the World Cup run near Heavenly’s California Main Lodge, is free of charge and open to the public. The event will feature a Red Bull guest DJ, the Heavenly Angels, an exhibition with local athletes, and pyrotechnics.

The event will be available live on ESPN3 on April 5, and will be aired as a one hour show on ABC’s “World of X Games” the following week.

Here’s a video from High Roller Hold ‘Em in April. >>>