CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD
The teenage snowboarders lie scattered under the lift like discarded socks. "Count them," Myron Knapschafer suggests. "At any given time, 25 percent of all snowboarders are sitting down. Victims of the wet-butt syndrome. Count them, multiply by four, and there you have the number of snowboarders out here today."
His own snowboard hanging from his right foot, his blade sunglasses wrapped stylishly around his face, Knapschafer continues his play-by-play. "Now what kind of way is that to ride?" he asks, watching a gangly man on a long racing board attempt a field of bumps. "Dad-blamed wimp! Got his weight on his back foot. Probably a skateboarder type. They never figure that out. Keep your weight on your back foot and you're messed up for the rest of your life. But he thinks this is all going to be a piece of cake."
A second later, the gangly man catches an edge and falls spectacularly, doing a half-dozen 360's before halting at the base of a tree.
"A piece of mashed-up cake is more like it," Knapschafer says, not without glee. "Of course, he rides a Burton. That's difficult."
That would come as big news in Burlington, Vermont, where Burton snowboards are made. One of the first brands ever manufactured, Burton continues to be the market leader.
"Burton has yet to make a decent board, let alone a freestyle board," Knapschafer says. "They're on the wrong track. What they have done is build a board that looks nice--with the graphics and the spiders and the fillets of fish all over them. Pretty boards."
Myron Knapschafer is 71--and that, he says, is too old for pretty boards. He much prefers the little-known Hiper snowboard, designed and manufactured by him, Myron Knapschafer, in the privacy of his own northwest Denver garage.
The Hiper board is anything but pretty, with its crude spray-paint finish and plywood body. Still, it's Knapschafer's idea of the perfect freestyle board.
"The term has come to mean acrobatics in the air, hotdogs doing back flips, things that cause the average skier to become terrified. That is not what freestyle should mean at all," Knapschafer insists. "What it should mean is going all over the mountain as if it were your playground. That's what the crowd that's coming up now wants to do. Go down the hill. Have some fun. Not flash past like a banshee. What I am shooting for is the average boarder."
Interesting, since Knapschafer himself is hardly your average boarder. Gliding away from the lift, he comes to a casual stop and buckles his left foot into its binding from a standing position. He makes sure to do this in clear sight of several snowboarders who are sitting in the snow, struggling with their own bindings. Then he smooths his sleek black suit, adjusts his sunglasses and shoots off the edge of what looks like a small cliff. Just when any normal rider would turn, Knapschafer pulls the front of his board into a 45-degree wheelie. You can hear someone gasp, someone else saying, "Did you see that old dude?"
You can see Myron Knapschafer oozing nonchalance. Then he tries a nose roll, a sort of aerial cartwheel, and falls down.
"If only I were young," he says, dusting off the snow. "If only I were young, I would tear this mountain up."
For Myron Knapschafer, the only pertinent facts of his life fall between 1983, when he first tried snowboarding, and now, when there are six new inches of powder at Loveland. If asked, he will sum up the preceding 58 years, but quickly, so as to get to more important matters, such as rubber versus plastic in the modern snowboard binding.
"I was in purchasing, in Iowa," he'll say. "Yeah, that means I bought stuff. Yeah, for a company." And yeah, after an early retirement, he moved to Denver with his then-wife and two children in 1980. Although Knapschafer had always been something of a sportsman, having designed and built a fiberglass sailboat or two, he remembers feeling no particular attraction to the mountains outside Denver or the recreation to be found there.
"I had always considered skiing far too dangerous," he says. "It ruins your knees and it's too expensive. All these items weighed heavily."
Instead he opted for the arcane sport of ice-boating, which offered reasonable thrills, the chance to get reacquainted with boat design, and some godawful weather. "Actually, you really only need one good day a season to satisfy your lust," he recalls. "It's freezing, and you get covered with rocks and gravel from that horrendous wind."
In March 1983, one of Knapschafer's friends invited him to a party with a group of waterskiers. Knapschafer thought this warmer-weather activity might become his new obsession, but then he became fascinated by a cocktail conversation about snowboards. "This fellow said there was no future in 'em," Knapschafer recalls, "and that he was going off to California to build surfboards."
That fellow left one of Knapschafer's friends with a couple of snowboards on his hands. A few weeks later he took them up to Berthoud Pass, then Colorado's unofficial shredding center, and invited Knapschafer along for the ride.
"I was intrigued," he remembers. "A little past Berthoud Falls we ran into a white-out raging blizzard. About a foot of powder. Up at the pass, the guys were running that powder. They looked like they were surfing. I figured it was just something I had to learn. And it turns out falling down in powder is almost fun. You fall and don't even know it."
Knapschafer rose and fell until the snow disappeared that spring, running down the ungroomed sides of Berthoud Pass with shredders half his age and less, hitching a ride back to the top whenever he hit bottom.
"I got hooked instantly," he says. "I had never had fun like that in my life."
"He stuck out like a sore thumb, actually," says Ike Garst, president of the Berthoud ski area from 1977 to 1987. "Notoriously, these boarders were fifteen-year-old kids with butch haircuts, and Myron wasn't young even then."
That was fine with Garst--as proprietor of the only Colorado ski area that tolerated snowboarding, he figured continued innovation might save him from being completely overwhelmed by the competition. "The sport almost died in 1979," he recalls. "That's when our insurance company figured out we were letting what they called `skiboards' on the mountain and said, `Hmmm, we won't do this.'"
Garst invited his insurers to inspect Berthoud's file of accident reports. As it turned out, he says, snowboard injuries actually happened less often and cost far less to repair than those sustained by skiers. The insurance company re-upped, and snowboarding continued at Berthoud, despite harassing phone calls Garst remembers getting from rival areas.
"I took a lot of flak for allowing them at all," he says. "They told me snowboarders pulled the T-bars off-line and dug gouges in the snow, that they didn't respect skiers."
Nevertheless, Garst continued to have faith that snowboarding would gain a foothold in the skiing market. "We built them one of the first half-pipes, we had contests for them, we tried to keep the lift operators from calling them flatheads," he says. "And I don't care what anyone says, they were wonderful. They policed themselves. Myron was just kind of the guru. Almost every weekend he came up. He had all these ideas for the kids to try, and they all sort of taught each other. Old Myron got to be a fixture."
By 1985, Knapschafer was firmly installed as a Berthoud snowboard instructor. "You could ride up the lift for free if you taught," he explains. "It wasn't a very regimented thing. We taught 'em to turn and stop, and that was about it."
"Quite frankly, he got a free lift ticket, a nice jacket and a discount on his lunch," Garst laughs. "Then, if by some strange stroke he actually taught a lesson, he even got paid! Once in a while, we'd have to say, `Myron, teach one,' and he'd say, `Oh, damn!'"
But Knapschafer's teaching is the last thing people from his Berthoud days remember. "No, the thing about him is, he's kind of an inventor," Garst says. "By the time I knew him, he was building wind surfers, and he was trying to perfect this chemical process so that snow wouldn't stick to things, and he always came up early to spray different things on our shovels."
You couldn't ride a snow shovel, though, and soon Knapschafer was applying his skills to bigger projects. After spending the day riding on an early Sims board, he'd buy a cheap pair of skis at a thrift shop, take them home, saw them in half and study how they were made. Unimpressed with the workmanship that went into all the snowboards he'd tried--"they broke, pure and simple"--Knapschafer concluded that "a wide ski a snowboard ain't," and set about trying to improve the situation in his garage workshop.
And so the Hiper board was born. Knapschafer considered it nothing less the board of choice for the next wave of snowboarders. This new crowd, he decided, would be old. A generation of non-skateboarders, they would be either too frail or too wise to try aerial stunts, and they would remain unimpressed with the hip graphics found on most young folks' boards. They would not relish sitting down in the snow every time they needed to stop or adjust a binding. In fact, Knapschafer thought, they'd find it "one hell of an aggravating proposition."
Starting with slabs of plywood and cheap plastic ski boots, Knapschafer devised a binding system that would allow the hard boots to rock from side to side and to clamp tight to the board with rubber straps that could be attached while the boarder was standing. The Hiper boards were wider and more stable than the competition, making it easier for beginners to complete such terrifying maneuvers as getting off the chairlift. And the Hiper was also flexible, with severely upturned ends--which made the patented Knapschafer wheelie not just possible, but probable.
That was enough high performance--the source of his board's name--for Knapschafer. Hiper riders cannot carve or grab extreme air, but that shouldn't matter to most people, says the board's inventor. "If you go up St. Mary's Glacier in the summer and practice them jumps and tricks, well, maybe you don't need my board. You'll fall down seven out of ten times--maybe ten out of ten, I don't know. The 27 little bones of your feet won't take that kind of shock forever. It's okay for kids, maybe, but I don't make boards for kids."
That position severely limited his market, however, since it was mostly kids who were snowboarding. Even today, snowboarding demographics supplied by the ski industry stop cold at age 34, as if no one older has ever dared to shred, and over a third of all shredders are between 12 and 17. And back in 1986, when Knapschafer joined a group of riders who convinced the Breckenridge ski area to open to snowboarders, he was the oldest...by decades.
"We had some very good boarders out there, famous guys," Knapschafer remembers. "No, no girls were there. We were trying to show them that a snowboard was a viable, controllable downhill device. Of course, it didn't hurt when they saw Grandpa out there."
"Myron is an incredible old dude," says Breckenridge spokesman Jim Felton. "He's a cat." Breckenridge was so enthused by the sport--and its elderly advocate--that the resort went on to host the first World Snowboard Championship that same year.
"He's a crazy man," agrees Scott Fortner, spokesman for Loveland, the area Knapschafer adopted when Berthoud closed in 1987. Fortner considers Knapschafer a fine example of the "graying" of the sport--a development he applauds. "The other riders here think Myron's great," Fortner adds, "especially those tricks he does."
Less great, he says, is Knapschafer's maniacal dedication to the Hiper board, and his stubborn stance that any other board on the face of the earth is inherently inferior.
"Yeah, he tried to work with our rental shop," Fortner remembers, "but he can't keep saying terrible things about Burton and Sims; it doesn't help his cause. He's actually--how to say this?--more of an inventor than a marketing guy. He needs a little savvy in that department."
"I guess I'm more in the developmental stage," Knapschafer admits. "I guess I need to do some marketing and graphics and all that. But with my board, if you bang it up real bad, you just sand it down and varnish it again."
He can't resist adding: "Why do you need a pretty board, anyway?"
A plain old Hiper board sells for about $500, although you may be able to take advantage of Knapschafer's 30 percent rebate offer, as well as a money-back guarantee that, as a Hiper rider, you will be able to "outride someone of equal ability." Sound good? Knapschafer thinks so, but he's "too hung up on perfection to go out there and push it," he says of his lack of salesmanship. "I guess we're waiting for the new, non-skateboard crowd to come to us."
It could happen.
"I was never much of a snow skier," Norm Speak, a 66-year-old retired Denver schoolteacher, says. "A friend of mine wanted me to get a season pass with him, and three years ago we did it. But I wasn't having fun. I looked at those guys on their snowboards, and they were. So I got a board."
Speak, who'd been a water-ski racer for forty years, decided against lessons and took the beating of his life on the Loveland Valley bunny slopes. He loved it. "I've been 85 times since then," he reports proudly. "I gave up snow skiing completely."
At Loveland it was hard to ride and not run into Myron Knapschafer, who talked Speak into trying a Hiper. "It turns easier than any I've ever been on," Speak reports. "You can ride the tail of it into a wheelie and it's nice and wide, rides powder excellent. I had Myron build me one, and I bought it."
So did his riding buddy, Ben Coleman. Now 67, Coleman has never shied away from less mainstream sports, having divided his working life equally between teaching public school and touring the world with ice-skating, trampoline, soft-shoe-dancing and trapeze reviews. And now snowboarding. "I was trying to ski in nineteen inches of wet powder a couple of years ago," Coleman recalls, "and the boarders were just going nuts. They were having too much fun for me to ignore."
Actually, learning the sport left Coleman "pretty beat up"--until he thought of calling Knapschafer. "I'd run into him years ago at Sloans Lake," Coleman says. "I'd been windsurfing in Corsica for a while and had decided to do it in Denver. Myron asked if he could try it. He was out there for about an hour, and then he went home and built himself a windsurfer."
Although Coleman also owns a commercial racing board, he prefers his Knapschafer model. The Hiper is easier to ride, and it's fun to pop wheelies in front of teenagers. "In fact," he says, "I get quite irritated when someone in the lift line says, `Oh, look at that old thing.' Well, it isn't that old, and it works very well. I hate to say it, but Myron is going to have to get some hot young boarders riding his boards. He'd get more orders than he can make. But he just doesn't know what it is to market something. I'm worried that someone will come along and steal his idea, and it'll be gone."
That's okay. Myron Knapschafer has more.
"Have you thought much about rowing shells?" he asks, back on the chairlift. "You know, I make 'em, but of course, I make 'em a little different..."
The chair passes over the half-pipe, momentarily pushing the idea of rowing shells from Knapschafer's brain. "You know why those fellas down there don't get hurt?" he asks. "They're not any more than four feet tall, for one thing, and there's nothing but Pepsi in them, for another. Still, I wonder what they'd do on my board. If you got young legs, there's nothing you can't do on it."
Knapschafer had his heart set on making his older grandson, David Fernandez, the official Hiper rider--on his eighteen-year-old legs. "But he's studying for that dad-blamed international baccalaureate program," Knapschafer says. "He says he's too distracted to ride this year."
In the meantime, Knapschafer's younger grandson, James, continues to keep him company on the slopes. The brothers have been riding nearly ten years; their grandfather has been their only teacher. He's often their only companion, too--so far, it hasn't occurred to them that they belong with the high school set.
"Well, those younger guys keep their distance," Knapschafer theorizes. "They see me and my grandsons doing our wheelies and nose rolls, and they don't want anyone to ask them why they can't do the same."
But they have plenty of questions for Knapschafer. As he gets off the lift, groups of young snowboarders gather around.
"If you're a skateboarder, just keep going," Knapschafer tells one dreadlocked teen who approaches.
"How do you put those bindings on standing up?" the young man persists.
"It's a system for the average boarder," Knapschafer responds. "The average boarder's feet shouldn't hurt. I'm past seventy, and everything on me should hurt, but it doesn't. Your feet do hurt--am I right?"
"Is it made of wood, or what?" someone else asks.
"It's one of those Hipers," another voice chimes in. "You can do wheelies on them, can't you?"
Knapschafer can't resist. "Yeah, you can," he says. And with that, he zooms downhill, all eyes on him. The resulting wheelie takes him several hundred yards, and everyone wants to know how he does it.
"Nothing to it," he tells them. "All you really need is my board."
There is another explanation that Knapschafer would love to give, but he decides it's all wrong for this crowd.
"You get old," he'd say, "you start sliding downhill.
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