Oldest Living Snowpunk Tells All

Chris Pappas takes his "hollow bravado" to the top of his profession.

I'm sitting in the snow at the top of the half-pipe at Eldora, watching Chris Pappas ride down. The eighteen-year-old boys around me stop doing whatever they're doing and stare down into the pipe. They all know who Chris is, and it's commonly accepted that on some level, he has superhuman powers. It is a well-known fact, for instance, that he can take any group of snowboarders, of any level, and push them far beyond where they, or anyone else, expects them to be. (I've taken several lessons with Chris myself, and if he hasn't made me actually rip, I at least feel like one who might have ripped -- which, at my age, is a miracle.)

Chris has been a snowboarder since the dawn of the sport. Unlike other living dinosaurs, he is still competing, sometimes successfully.

In January, I opened Snowboarder magazine and saw that Colorado's Snowboarder of the Month was "definitely Chris Pappas." Despite "Pappy's" advanced age -- he's 36 -- he was "still the ruler," having placed in the top ten at something called "the Vegetative" in Oregon.

No business like snow business: Meet Chris Pappas, chairman of the board.
Anthony Camera
No business like snow business: Meet Chris Pappas, chairman of the board.

"Oh, it raises money to reforest some mountain," Chris later explains. "But it's just a half-pipe thing. I did well, too. I was kinda surprised. I'm just trying to keep up, you know?"

And then when Rob Kingwell won $10,000 at the half-pipe Grand Prix in Breckenridge, he said he intended to give the first $500 "to my hero Chris Pappas, so he can finish the season."

This was not just flattering but handy, as Chris is the kind of guy who's always trying to scrounge together $500 so he can go halfway across the country to compete in a half-pipe somewhere, or have his picture taken by a photographer who may get his image into a glossy magazine, or coach some young hopeful who doesn't happen to live within a thousand miles of Nederland. This is why he works at Eldora: More serious teaching jobs do not allow instructors to disappear on a whim to pursue fifteen-year-old dreams of grandeur.

"We give him a very flexible schedule, so he can take off when he wants to," says Eldora's snowboard supervisor, Wendy Gould. "No one asks any different of him, and it's worth it to us, because he's very specific and very patient. We even got a call from Steamboat this year asking if they could borrow him to train their staff. I think they also wanted to know if what they'd heard about him could possibly be true."

Although Gould gave Chris the message, she's not sure if he ever called Steamboat, much less accepted their offer. Something else might have come up, and besides, the corporate thing at Steamboat might have grated on Chris. "I bet," she laughs. "He has a bit of a problem conforming to Eldora's grooming standards. The men have to shave every single day or they will be fined or sent home."

I find this amusing. In the six or seven times I've ridden with Chris, he did not show any signs of having shaved, bathed or even slept.

"So we cover for him," Gould says, "because he's the best. He's trained me, and he expects me to do what he teaches me 100 percent of the time. When I don't, he gets mad, and I suck up to him and he takes me back, and there's no one who can ride like him. His carving technique is more advanced than most people in the country. So what if he's a thirteen-year-old skateboarder in a 36-year-old body?"

I watch him fly off the edges of the groomed snow, a small man, like a gymnast who has slipped his moorings and flown off into the blue sky. Then I realize he is signaling me to follow him, which I do, swallowing my pride, careening back and forth in a way that feels daringly out of control but clearly looks ludicrous, as I can tell by the faces of other eighteen-year-olds at the bottom of the pipe. I don't hear whatever they've been saying about me, but Chris does.

"Hey, shut up, you little punks," he says.

"Hey, fuck you," one of them says back at him. "Fuck you, old man."

Chris's Boulder double-wide is littered with three things: the toys that have carried his daughter Madison -- who now lives in California, but visits -- from birth to seven; a collection of historic snowboards; and a two-foot-high stack of paper documenting his life thus far. Among the papers are dozens of snowboard magazines, from glossy to zine, in which Chris appears, usually in a photograph taken from far away as he does some rad trick; there are also family snapshots of him and his ten brothers and sisters, of whom he is second youngest. The stack of papers also includes family news, written and disseminated through the large Pappas family by Chris's mother, Charlene. At some point after Chris left home, she must have purged her own files of all his official documents -- they're now all part of his stack.

Surrounded by Snurfers and Wintersticks, we read pages from his life and listen to classical music on KCFR. Chris pulls out a Boulder Valley Public Schools psychologist's report from 1978, his ninth-grade year: "He is of above-average intelligence, but seems young for his age. His statements are marked by hollow, anxious bravado. He spoke compulsively of becoming an expert in high-risk activities such as race-car driving, motorcycle racing and skateboarding."

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