Sophia Capua was four years old the first time she noticed the cartoonish graffiti monster characters drawn on a banner at the base of Loveland Ski Area. She also liked the sight of Pat Milbery, co-founder of the So-Gnar Snowboard Camp Tour, riding the rails with a giant monster mask over his head. So she toddled over to check it all out.
What she and her parents found was a spectacle of riders of all ages sliding, jumping and spinning on a playground of brightly colored terrain-park features. Sophia decided right then that this was precisely the kind of thing she wanted to be a part of; she even managed to sneak into the group picture at the end of the day. “I wasn’t even in the camp!” remembers Sophia, who is now all of seven years old. “After that, I wanted to go to the So-Gnar camp so I could get better at snowboarding.”
Her parents signed her up the following year. And although she’d only recently mastered riding the chairlift and linking turns together, she was already eager to learn some new tricks. Kids these days.
On her first day at camp, Sophia began riding up and over a wide rainbow-rail feature on the miniature terrain park built specifically for So-Gnar, hitting it straight on at first, a basic move that snowboarders call a 50-50. It was her first scary trick. “I kept thinking that I would fall into the gap or my board would get stuck in the gap! After getting over that fear, I went for it, did it, and it was best feeling ever!”
She then progressed to more advanced moves like nose presses and tail presses and board slides, impressing everyone on the scene.
Next, the pint-sized rider with pink snow pants and a snowboard not much bigger than a skateboard started eyeing a bright-orange feature that the camp’s coaches had dubbed the “cannon” — a short, flat bar banked at a steep angle and designed to launch riders into the air.
“She was a bit scared,” her mother, Pam Capua, admits of her tiny but mostly fearless daughter. “Pat noticed, and I remember he held her hands and rode along with her to do the cannon rail that first time. He was like, ‘All right, let’s do this!’ And she did it! Then she went right back up and did it by herself. I think that feeling, that moment right there, probably made her a snowboarder for life.”
Milbery, a pro snowboarder, graffiti artist and promoter, didn’t set out to be a role model to the kindergarten set when he moved to Colorado more than a decade ago from Minnesota to pursue a snowboarding career. But he’s managed to do that at the same time that he’s become well known around Denver for his street-art murals, as the promoter of the Shredded Beats hip-hop concert series, and for his wildly creative urban-snowboarding shots in magazine spreads.
But as his So-Gnar Snowboard Camp Tour enters its tenth-anniversary season, he says that creating an affordable and accessible camp for kids and working with upcoming riders like Sophia is the most important thing he’s ever done.
“Sophia’s my hero,” he says. “All these kids out there, from the littlest kids and their awesome parents to the teenagers to the pro riders coming out to help: If they’re out there having fun and getting wacky with us, that’s who I look up to.”
Sophia has since entered — and won — some contests on the United States of America Snowboard and Freeski Association (USASA) amateur circuit, and has even picked up sponsors within the snowboard industry: Google her name and you’ll find some seriously adorable footage put out by Flow Snowboards and other brands. Her parents say they’re grateful she got her first real exposure to snowboarding from So-Gnar.
“What we love about the camps is that they place so much value on being creative and having fun, and I’m glad she’s learning that,” Pam says. “Even though she does some contests now, she knows it’s about having fun and not worrying about a medal.”
Sophia says Milbery is her hero.
“The most important thing I’ve learned from So-Gnar is always bend your knees so you have more balance on the rails,” she says. “And never give up. Keep trying!”
“Growing up as a Midwestern kid, cold was nothing to me,” Milbery says. “Cold was normal. I love the cold. I’m talking true frozen tundra: I remember having big snow banks next to my driveway all winter long, building snow tunnels to bomb my sister with snowballs when she wasn’t looking, having massive neighborhood snowball fights, playing hockey.... It was a full-on winter environment.
Milbery discovered snowboarding when he was eleven, and begged his parents for a board. They acquiesced — sort of. “My first board was plastic and didn’t have metal edges or real bindings, because they really didn’t want to invest in something better until they knew I liked it,” he says. “But I ripped around on that thing anyway. I was still kind of Catholic at the time, and I remember praying and praying and praying for a real board for Christmas.”
Santa delivered the next Christmas. “Big ups to Mom and Dad for that. I got that thing, ripped it out of the packaging and went straight out to the yard and started building jumps and geeking out,” Milbery recalls. “From then on, I’d build jumps in my back yard and teach myself the basics. My neighbor buddy — he had the best name ever, Peter Wanker — started coming over to ride with me, and we’d go out there for hours every day after school. That was the beginning.”
Milbery remembers his mom bringing snacks and hot chocolate to the windowsill because he and his friends didn’t want to stop to come inside for even a minute. He eventually made his way to his local Minnesota ski areas, spots like Buck Hill and Afton Alps, and then to Colorado on a trip to Vail with his parents — but it was his backyard DIY setup that first got him hooked.
“There was so much joy in building jumps for yourself, running an extension cord out to throw music on and ride with your friends, and just figuring it all out on your own, just playing for the sake of playing,” he remembers. “I’ve always tried to hang on to that feeling in everything I’ve gotten up to since.”
After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 2002 with a multi-disciplinary degree combining sports management, communications and marketing, Milbery and several of his friends chased the dream to Colorado, where his own career as a pro rider began to take off. He began making his first snowboard videos, set to a soundtrack of the hip-hop and punk rock that he’d grown up riding to back home, and began collecting sponsors attracted to his distinctive style, infectious smile, DIY vibe and playful, positive attitude on and off the slopes.
“It all felt unreal, getting paid to snowboard and everything that came with it,” he remembers. “But then reality started slapping back pretty hard.”
The first hit was the loss of his good friend Josh Malay, who died in a hospital in Spain in February 2004 after hitting his head during a snowboarding photo shoot in the Pyrenees in Andorra. Malay was 23 years old at the time.
“Josh was the closest person I knew who had really made it in snowboarding,” Milbery says. “He was what I wanted to be, what we all wanted to be, and losing him was really tough on me. I remember having all these conversations with our friends, asking, ‘Why is life so gnarly?’”
And then, just around the same time, Milbery’s mother began a very hard struggle with cancer. “I was just beginning to process Josh being gone when my dad called me: ‘You’ve got to get home. Mom’s not doing so good.’ It was like, ‘Aw, shit.’ I booked a ticket the next day and flew home to be with her,” he says. “She was able to recover from that immediate bout, and we put her in hospice care at the house. The day she actually passed away, on May 3, I wasn’t there for it, and I think that’s the way she wanted it. I was driving home from a talent audition for some commercial, and I’d just pulled over and was eating a fucking ice cream cone when I got the call: ‘You’ve got to come home.’ I knew immediately what had happened, and I threw the ice cream cone against a wall. I couldn’t believe all this shit was happening, you know? But then immediately, something else came into my mind: I’ve got to do something bigger than myself. My mom was so much bigger than herself.”
That summer, Milbery got an offer to go to the Windells Snowboard Camp in Oregon as a guest coach. When he told his dad he was thinking about declining, he was surprised by the answer. “My dad just said, ‘You’ve got to go. That’s good healing. If you don’t go, you’re going to go insane.’ I knew immediately that he was right. My mom would always ask, ‘What feels good in your gut? Follow what your heart and your gut are telling you to do. Do what you love to do. Believe in yourself and your friends.’ She taught me so much, and I wanted to honor that, so I went.”
It was there that Milbery first fell in love with coaching and began to realize a way to make snowboarding be about something bigger than himself and his own career as a pro.
“The other realization there was just how expensive it was to go to camp, seeing what an amazing experience it was for the kids who could afford to go and then immediately thinking about how far out of reach it would have been for me or any of my friends or for most kids out there,” he says. “Why is life so gnarly? I decided right then to turn it around: in snowboarding, gnarly is a good thing.”
The next year, Milbery got some friends together to create the Snowboard Camp Tour and started traveling to tiny ski areas around the country to offer affordable two-day camps for kids. “We’d just load up a van with a bunch of cool little features we built ourselves and set them up at the base of the ski area,” he says. “I always hated that it was so prohibitively expensive to get into snowboarding, when my own experience had always been the opposite of all that, so part of what I wanted to show these kids was a bit of that.”
In the decade since, Milbery has managed to keep his own career as a pro snowboarder going: He has a signature snowboard with Zoo York, a signature So-Gnar “High Five” glove with POW Gloves, plus sponsorship deals with Bern Unlimited for helmets and goggles and with Boulder-based Zeal Optics for sunglasses. 686 Technical Apparel is releasing a jacket in collaboration with So-Gnar this season, and photos of Milbery’s urban-snowboarding missions still find their way into magazines. He’s mostly retired from competition, but he says he’s looking forward to filming with several different crews this season for videos due out next fall.
Meanwhile, the Snowboard Camp Tour has grown into an eighteen-stop tour supported by brands including LibTech and Arbor Snowboards, 686, Bern, Zeal Optics, Airloop, Denver-based Boa Closure Systems, Apollo Ink, Evol Burritos, Aspire Beverages and Naked Juice. So-Gnar has also become a T-shirt and apparel brand, and a promoter of Denver-area hip-hop concerts and other events. It also has a creative division that includes a team of sponsored snowboarders, skateboarders, photographers, filmmakers, musicians and graffiti artists.
“From the beginning, we wanted So-Gnar to be a hub of creativity, an incubator for teaming up and working with others, and a way to channel some positive energy and creative expression into the community,” Milbery says. “So the definition of ‘What is So-Gnar?’ is always changing. The basic concept is that you put a bunch of passionate people together, encourage them to go wild, and then, once you get that ball rolling, watch the snowball effect of it and see where it takes you.”
Around Denver, that spirit of collaboration has led to a proliferation of new murals in recent years. Milbery, a self-taught artist, says the murals come from the same place as his snowboarding.
“For me, whether it’s snowboarding — when I almost always work together with a photographer or filmmaker to capture the moment — or painting or making music or anything else, creating with other people is therapeutic; it’s a way of getting your feelings out, expressing yourself, and finding these juxtapositions that happen when somebody else is by your side doing the same and bumping up against you,” he says. “It’s a way of getting outside of yourself a little bit to see what happens when you invite someone else in to join you instead of just bouncing around in your head all the time. It’s really easy to be selfish and do your own thing all the time, and I’m always looking for ways to break out of that, because it’s so much more fun when you can get over your own shit.”
Milbery’s “Smile” mural of the late Robin Williams as Mork from Mork & Mindy on the wall of the Buffalo Exchange Annex at 226 East 13th Avenue is a collaboration with Canadian artist Danny Fernandez (aka Def3). A brightly colored assortment of the So-Gnar monster characters he and So-Gnar co-founder Andrew Heard created together adorns the front of the same building. Then there’s the high-profile “Colfax is for Lovers” alley cat on the east-facing side of Lost Lake Lounge, at 3602 East Colfax Avenue, a collaboration between Milbery and Pat McKinney, and the “Birdfish” mural on the west-facing wall of the same building, a collaboration with Mike Graves.
Milbery, Def3, Jason Anderson and Robin Munro (aka Dread) created murals for the front and east-facing walls of the Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, while Milbery and Def3 also worked together on a series of murals at Declaration Brewing; they adorn the front, interior, canning line, and back garage doors at 2030 Cherokee Street. He worked with Katie Maas on the geometric mural at Studio Salon, 1135 Bannock Street; with Heard and David Sheets on a monster mural on the west-facing wall at the 1Up Colfax, 717 East Colfax Avenue; and with So-Gnar creative-division artist Griff Nation on a series of murals for Wahoo’s Fish Tacos in Northfield, Englewood and southeast Denver.
This week, Milbery is putting the finishing touches on the latest, created in partnership with Spencer Foreman on the back wall of Stem Ciders, at 2811 Walnut Street. His work, including the now-ubiquitous So-Gnar stickers depicting monsters and aliens and the So-Gnar submarine logo, can be found all over town.
“This city has really embraced street art in a big way, both the business owners and the city itself, offering grants and commissions for artists and offering up all these amazing walls,” Milbery says. “It feels like a really special pro-art moment in Denver right now for a whole lot of reasons. When artists have outlets and opportunities to create on a big public scale like that, it breeds so much beauty around the community.”
The tenth-anniversary So-Gnar Snowboard Camp Tour kicks off at Loveland Ski Area with a two-day session (December 12 and 13) that costs $155. After that, the tour heads for the “Mighty Midwest” of Milbery’s roots (the So-Gnar tour was originally dubbed the Mighty Midwest Snowboard Camp Tour), with stops at Buck Hill Ski Area in Minnesota, Granite Peak and Sunburst and Tyrol Basin in Wisconsin, Chestnut Resort in Illinois, Pando Park and Pine Knob Ski Resort in Michigan, Mad River in Ohio, and Seven Springs and Big Boulder Park in Pennsylvania.
“It’s a great event, and we love having those guys up here, because it’s a totally different kind of camp than we could offer on our own,” says Loveland Ski Area spokesman John Sellers. “Every year they do a tremendous job, and it’s great to watch them engage with the young snowboarders out on the hill. It’s always a fun atmosphere, and we always get a lot of great feedback from the participants and their families, who are always really impressed with the way Pat and his crew handle things and work with the kids while they’re here.”
The tour doubles back to Denver for a single-day camp at Ruby Hill on January 1 coinciding with the SnowSports Industries America (SIA) Snow Show at the Colorado Convention Center, then continues on with dates at Red River Ski Area in New Mexico, Bear Mountain and Boreal in California, and Summit at Snoqualmie in Washington. It concludes with two more Colorado stops in the spring, March 14 and 15 at Copper Mountain and March 21 and 22 at Winter Park.
“I look back on what it’s taken to get to where we are now with the camp tour, and, man, it’s a lot,” Milbery says. “It’s taken a ton of hard work, some broken friendships and relationships, living in a van with a lot of super-stinky boots a lot of the time, the sacrifice of any kind of normality of sleep patterns and schedules.... Nothing has been normal about the last ten years of my life, especially when we’re on tour. We’ve had five vans gone to shit along the way, eaten a lot of terrible resort cafeteria food, and broken a lot of snowboards and some bones.
“We’ve done a lot of terrain-park builds in the middle of the night in subzero temperatures, working until 4 a.m. and then getting up at 7 a.m. to run the camps,” he continues. “I’ve learned to be a babysitter and a big brother to a lot of people. It’s all required a lot of patience, to say the least. But then, obviously, there are a ton of perks. We’re working to reach as many kids in as many different snowboard communities as possible, influencing these kids and infecting these communities with good energy. And we’re out there doing it, you know? Snowboarding and living it.”
Milbery thinks his mom would be proud. He knows his dad is; Kevin Milbery followed his son to Colorado and now lives in Edwards. He still pops up at some of his son’s events, and makes a point to get down to Denver to see the newest murals.
“I think more than anything, he can see and feel how happy I am, so he’s 100 percent behind it all,” Milbery says. “He’d seen me in a handful of contests over the years, and he’d seen a lot of the media — the videos and ads and photos in magazines — but the biggest moment was when he came to Snowboard on the Rocks the last year we did it there, and he got to see 6,500 people at an event I’d put together with a few of my pals. His smile was ear-to-ear. I think that was when he really understood.”
Dozens of pro riders have helped coach the camps over the years, and many of the biggest names are coming back for individual stops this year to help mark the anniversary. Scott Stevens and some of his friends from his “Change That Tape” video crew will be among the pros coaching at the Loveland camp. Milbery’s even more proud of having helped mint some new top riders through the camps, like local rider Chris Corning, who’s coming back to return the favor for the next generation.
Corning — now sixteen and sponsored by brands like Never Summer, Monster Energy, 686, Candygrind, ThirtyTwo and Smith Optics — has been attending the So-Gnar camps since 2008, first as a participant and then as a coach. This summer, he won the slopestyle contest at the New Zealand World Cup; he’s going to miss some or all of this year’s Loveland camp because he just got his first invitation to compete with the pros at the Dew Tour at Breckenridge the same weekend.
“I feel really grateful that I got to be a part of So-Gnar from such an early age, just because that whole crew is so super-happy and positive all the time,” Corning says. “The whole thing is all about the kids, and they bring a really good hype to everything: They’re really good guys, they’re all great riders, they give out tons of swag, and the kids just love it there. It’s a much different angle from the contest scene, or from other camps that are geared toward that scene, and it’s an important one, because it’s all about creativity and good energy and helping each other out. That whole vibe has meant everything to me.”
“It’s extremely validating for me and my crew to have these success stories coming out of our snowboard camps, and it’s also fuel for the tank to keep doing it, even though sending kids to the USASA contests, like Sophia, or to the Dew Tour, like Chris Corning, or turning kids pro has never been the goal,” Milbery says.
So what is the goal?
“Getting people to have some fun and embrace their weird and not limit their self-expression, on a snowboard or with anything else,” Milbery says. “I feel like we’re constantly being judged in our lives. You go through school and sports and everything else, and it’s all structure, structure, structure, where you have people constantly guiding you, evaluating you, telling you what you can and can’t do. You constantly have to have approval for everything, and it all feels so regimented.
“Our goal, from the beginning, has been to be the opposite of all that, because fuck all of that. We’re like, ‘Come out and play!’ Who doesn’t want to play? We’re stoked that a lot of kids, a lot of their parents, a lot of pro riders, and a lot of awesome brands and partners have wanted to come out and play over the last ten years. We’re just getting started.”
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.