Oldest Living Snowpunk Tells All
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.
"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."
"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..."
Along the way, Chris realized that he had become attached to his daughter. Now when he takes off, half the time it's to see her. He thinks about getting her to come back to Boulder. But things are...tumultuous, or whatever.
We suddenly catch up to the present, when a sport that once numbered its participants in the dozens is now everybody's favorite thing to try. The half-pipe competitions are crowded with kids half Chris's age. He's known as a teacher more than as a rider.
"But you're a good teacher," I say, sounding ridiculous. "Remember when you were teaching me and Joanne and you saw that big fat girl just falling down the mountain, and you said you could teach her one thing, and change her day? And you did it!"
"Yeah, I remember her. She just hadn't figured out to set her edge so that -- "
"But that must be so satisfying."
"That's just my acting skill," he says. "And my teaching is all basic stuff. Everything I teach applies to the moguls or the pipe or the green hills or the pro guys who jump and spin, it's the same thing. I keep them in their comfort zone, bring them back to the beginning. I help people out, and they think I'm cool, and then maybe I am. Maybe a person who thinks like this doesn't have other skills in his life and he doesn't have attention, so he teaches. But that's why I keep up the competition. I don't want to be a geek standing on the mountain watching people and telling them what to do and not doing it. I don't want to be that."
It's not yet time to quit. This is why: He got that ninth at the Vegetative last year. Before that, he came close, but always broke a bone. His housepainting boss will give him an advance from time to time, and someone at Eldora just came through with $150. Therefore, he can afford to keep competing.
Besides, he still has sponsors -- K2 for boards and bindings, Anarchy for eyewear, Adidas for clothing. "It comes from the skateboard thing," he explains. "It's real prestigious to be sponsored. In the old days everyone was because there weren't very many of us. Now the only people who will be hooked up are the ones that are good. But the Adidas guy told me, he said you got the attitude. I don't care if you're old. Hey, he just sent me some shoes. Hopefully, I'll go somewhere and get on TV, and I'll be wearing them."
"Yeah, I give Chris boards," says K2's Dave Billinghurst. "Chris was teaching snowboarding to my pro riders when they were kids at Mount Hood. I don't expect him to win medals or anything. But I think he's courageous to get out there, for someone of his age, with all those young kids. And he's a good ambassador, and he loves the sport, and he has fun. As long as you're out there having fun, nothing else matters."
As it turns out, plenty else matters. The riders Billinghurst sponsors -- with six-figure salaries, company-sponsored photo shoots and travel expenses paid -- possess a quality that is hard to describe, but to call it "out there having fun" would be just plain wrong.
"What it comes down to is these pro-rider kids become rock stars," Billinghurst explains. "And not necessarily the guys who win, either. What you gotta do is shoot a lot of pictures and movies, huck yourself off big cliffs, get your coverage, be in front of the camera, that's what we want."
"It sounds more like the music industry than a sport," I say.
"Yeah," Billinghurst agrees. "We sell products to people ages five to fifty, but our core person is fourteen to 21. They're very impressionable. They look at the ads in magazines and they go okay, this guy is riding X board with X binding and wearing X clothes, and they go out and buy the exact same thing. That kid will buy a shitty board because a cool-looking guy is riding it."
"That's fourteen to 21?" I repeat.
"That's the age, and the age is very important. Say you're 25 -- at that point it gets hard. Whatever hasn't happened to you by then probably hasn't happened for a reason."
I put this to Wendy Gould, Chris's boss.
"I used to compete when I was 24," she tells me, "but now I'm too old. I blew out my knee. I'm not the rider I used to be."
"You're how old?"
"Twenty-six. I'm too old for that snowboarding lifestyle -- riding above all else, including money and shelter and food. Trying to do it year-round. I used to go to South America or Mount Hood. Waiting for the next dump or the next season, giving up everything to catch the freshies and catch the air. I can't do that anymore."
"What got into you?" I ask.
"Maturity," she laughs. "Also, I blew out my knee."
Yeah, yeah, maturity. Chris knows the drill.
"I've been offered jobs," he points out. "At academies, coaching good kids, with a good salary and benefits and stuff, and a lot of guys my age have done that: take the job, drop out and get on with the rest of their life. I could just bail on the competition and do that. But me, I can't pull myself away. I just love riding the half-pipe."
But this isn't what he called to talk about. He wants my address so he can send X rays of his body. We both know this will make vivid journalistic art. I'd already asked him to draw a stick figure representing himself, and to mark on it his injuries -- all of which have a dramatic snowboarding story attached. It took him twenty minutes.
"Oh, and can you make a mark on the collarbone on that drawing?" he asks. "I blew it out two years ago, wiped out in the half-pipe at the US Grand Prix Olympic Qualifier."
After he hangs up, I get out the sketch, color in the collarbone blowout, and spend a few moments trying to decipher his handwriting. "Rt leg broke bike 80, 81, wrestling, on a tree at Eldora 97, novicular, broke here & here & here..."
Then I wait, but the envelope from Chris never arrives. I guess he took off.
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