Oldest Living Snowpunk Tells All

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

"I guess snowboarding hadn't been invented," I say.

"I wasn't doing it yet, anyway," Chris says. "'Hollow bravado,' ha. What a bunch of shit."

I continue reading: "He does not seem to have a sense of responsibility."

"Well, that's true," he admits. "But all the psychologist stuff happened because of the accident."

At the beginning of his ninth-grade year, Chris was hitchhiking and got a ride in a Jeep that subsequently rolled, breaking both his legs. He spent most of that year in a wheelchair and missed almost all of his classes. His mother and teachers worried. A psychologist was called in. Chris listened to what everyone said, but decided to go with his gut -- which meant bravado, hollow or otherwise. A lifelong skateboarder, the minute he saw a picture of a snowboard in a magazine, he decided to take up the new sport. With the settlement money from his accident, he ordered a snowboard to share with his brother George.

This early board looked like a chubby slalom water ski, with a steel keel -- called a "skeg" -- and ropes instead of bindings. Practicing on it meant jumping off a snow-covered roof onto a snow-covered picnic table -- an art both Pappas brothers perfected -- or hiking up Berthoud Pass looking for powder to ride.

"It was my life's goal to make it down this puny little section at Berthoud Pass," Chris recalls. "With my crippled, messed-up legs, I couldn't hike fast, I wasn't strong, I wore out faster than my brother and everyone else, but I just accepted it -- I couldn't care less, I just thought it was so fun.

"At one point, my brother George broke the skeg off the board, and I was furious at him. It turned out you could snowboard just fine without one. That was a turning point."

Chris graduated from a two-year program in petroleum management in the early '80s, just in time to see the oil business tank. Accepted to the Colorado School of Mines, he chose his current girlfriend instead, stayed in Boulder, took up housepainting for a living and kept snowboarding, changing technology as fast as he could make the money to pay for it.

In the winter of 1985, he visited Jackson Hole, fell in love with the powder at the resort and wanted to stay. "So I went to the ski school and talked to Pepi Stiegler, the ski-school director," he remembers. "I asked him to let me teach. He said he didn't think anyone would want lessons, but okay. So, with my 'hollow bravado,' I started a snowboard school. I called Tom Sims and asked him for ten snowboards -- a rental fleet. Then I found out I had to go to a five-day clinic for teachers. My instructor didn't know what to do with me, other than tell me to go put on skis. So he ignored me."

That was fine with Chris. The ski instructors were working on turning, carving, pole-planting -- all skills he didn't know and didn't think he needed.

"Actually, I sucked," he recalls. "All I could do was jump around and go straight downhill. But what this guy was teaching actually made me start to think, and then I got a little mad. I thought, dammit, if they're gonna do a pole-plant drill, I'm gonna do a pole-plant drill. If they're gonna get down, start the turn, stand up, turn, get back down, I'm gonna do it, too."

At the end of five days, not only could he turn, he could do it well enough to explain it to another rider -- if there had been another rider. The concept of "the progression of the turn" intrigued him. He wrote down his thoughts and handed them in, as though it were a term paper. And even as he sits indoors, talking, using his hands to illustrate his point, I remember what it was like to learn these things from him on snow, about snowboarding -- things he may have been the first person in the world to teach -- and I see that inside Chris Pappas is a flash of genius.

"You wanna eat?" he asks, digging in his pocket. "I have two, no, three dollars. We can go to Taco Bell."


At Taco Bell, who should be in line with us but Al Quiller, Chris's high school gymnastics coach.

"God, you should have seen him on the parallel bars," Quiller says. "Even with casts on both his legs, he was amazing."

"Yeah," Chris says, "I was so brilliant." He scarfs his lunch and powers through the rest of his life story -- competing, nearly winning, riding at Mount Hood in the summer, going to Alaska to be photographed riding wild glaciers, painting houses, washing dishes.

"It went that way for five years, and then I met this hot little snowboard chick and she got pregnant and that blew my whole career," he says. "I was doing pro contests, riding for Sims...She was a really talented athlete, but not into the scene, which I was, and that was a problem...We moved to Durango to run a snowboard shop at Purgatory, we made it through the winter, we moved to Boulder and bought a trailer. Yeah, it's always a trailer, it's white-trash...I was riding for Aggression, it was great...I was stuck in Durango in a trailer with a two-year-old, it was hell...And then, I guess you could call it a tumultuous breakup or whatever..."

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