When skiers and riders arrive at Copper Mountain Resort’s perfectly manicured 22-foot superpipe, they probably don’t think about all the hours of love and attention that go into creating and maintaining it. But Debbie Caves does.
For the past three years, Caves has been the only person Copper has trusted to care for its award-winning halfpipe.
“The more I dedicate myself to it, the more I care about it. It’s kind of my baby in a sense,” Caves said.
It’s becoming more common for ski resorts to have dedicated pipe cutters, tasking one person to take sole custody of the halfpipe versus having whoever happens to be on the schedule groom it.
“When you spend hours night after night grooming the pipe, you know everything about that pipe,” Caves said. “You’ve traveled up and down it numerous, numerous times and you’ve created everything that’s in there.”
Her time and attention to the pipe has not gone unnoticed. In June 2011, Colorado Ski Country USA named her Pipe Master of the Year during their annual Double Diamond Awards Reception. The awards recognize outstanding industry professionals based on nominations from coaches, resort supervisors and managers, and a committee of judges comprised of industry peers that look at professionalism, dedication, contribution, leadership, and attitude.
It’s obvious that Caves is well deserving of the award when she said, “I like to take pride in it, take my time and do the best job that I can.”
That award is not the only testament to Caves’s talent and dedication. On Dec. 5-10, 2011, Copper will host the USSA Grand Prix of Snowboarding for the fifth year in a row, bringing the top snowboarders in the county to Caves’s pipe to compete in the first Olympic qualifier of the season. In addition, Copper’s reputation for having the earliest and best early season halfpipe draws elite athletes like Shaun White, Gretchen Bleiler, Louie Vito, Kelly Clark and more to train for upcoming competitions.
Not bad for a girl who was born and raised in Mederly, Louisiana near New Orleans. While snow was not second nature to Caves, hard work was.
“I come from a pretty old school family,” Caves said. “No one went to college, we all just worked really hard for a living, so I just fell into construction work, running heavy equipment.”
When she moved to Colorado after high school, she was living in Denver doing just that. One night she had a dream that she was up on a ridgeline in the mountains working at a ski area and woke with the realization that she was meant to be in the mountains. Years later, she says she felt a sense of it déjà vu when landing a job at Copper running snowcats.
After three years “freelance” grooming as she calls general snowcat operations, at the encouragement of her friend and supervisor, Jason Gusaas, Caves tried her hand at the park and pipe, joining the ranks of a very male-dominated specialty.
“There are not that many female operators in general, so it’s even more rare to find a woman with the skill and passion for the halfpipe and terrain park,” said Gusaas, who was the Terrain Park Foreman at Copper with Caves and now teaches Ski Area Management at Colorado Mountain College. “Once you do, it’s great because women tend to have more patience than men and that is essential. Debbie is one of the top operators in the halfpipe of any gender.”
Caves plays down being in the gender minority by saying that it isn’t a factor for her, noting that the camaraderie in the ski industry in general, among groomers in particular, leads to a culture of respect and acceptance. “It has never been an issue. Which is a good thing because I don’t stand for that.”
Despite her nonchalance about the boundaries she continues to break, it’s clear she is setting a good example for her five-year-old daughter, Nicole.
“Her daughter goes in the cat with her and skis in the pipe with her,” Gusaas said. “I wouldn’t doubt it if she is cutting the pipe someday.”