When snowboarders first took their skills onto the mountain, there wasn’t a shed full of specialty grooming equipment to cut halfpipes with smooth walls, sharp lips and perfectly flat platforms. Each pipe was hand-dug, one shovel-full at a time — and if you wanted to compete in those early competitions, you had to help dig the pipe.
“They shape it with a cat down the middle of it and everyone goes out there with a shovel and hand digs it, finds their personal hits and runways,” said Michael Troppman, a part-time Breckenridge resident and one of the certifiable “old guys” of snowboarding.
Troppman’s voice came through the phone from his lab in Denver, where he was taking a break from working on a custom Snurfer, a re-creation of one of the first styles of snowboards. The specialty bits of nostalgia are each hand made and sell for between $3,000 and $4,000 a pop, and there’s no better place to ride them than in a hand-dug pipe like the one that will be featured at this weekend’s Throwback Throwdown in Breckenridge.
In the beginning …
To truly understand what this annual event means to snowboard pioneers like Troppman, you have to take a trip back to the dawn of shred at local resorts.
During the 1983-84 ski season, Troppman, along with fellow “old guys” Jeff Grell and Steve Link, was traveling around giving snowboarding demos to the ski areas. In those days, the Aspen Skiing Co. owned Breckenridge, and Troppman said the trio did a demo at Buttermilk.
“They were like, ‘Hey, go over to Breck and show them what’s going on. We can give you a good venue over there,’” Troppman said. “That was the first experience in Breckenridge with allowing it. They liked what they saw, then ... the next year, in ’85, they fully allowed it at Breckenridge, which was a huge step in showcasing what riding had progressed to.
“It was very pivotal to us seeing major areas allow it,” Troppman said of snowboarding. “It was some enlightenment for us all, some validation.”
Troppman had been riding with Grell since 1975 and Link since ’79 in Michigan. Fellow pioneer Tom Sims even babysat Link when he was a kid in New Jersey.
“In ’83, I made Ultimate Control Boards, Link and Grell were on Sims; I’d been making my own boards since ’81 — we all had our own boards, per say,” Troppman said. “That’s all part of the story, I guess.”
The first hand-dug mini pipe at Breckenridge was built for the Swatch World Snowboarding Championships in 1986.
“We all came — Tom Sims, Jake Burton, Chuck Barfoot — all of the snowboard makers at the time,” Troppman said. “We’d all been to these East Coast and West Coast contests. (We thought), let’s have this contest at Breckenridge, this huge area, the first true world championships of snowboarding.”
Riders came from all over for the first comp in Breck, including Europeans Regis Rolland from Apocalypse Surf and guys from Hooger Booger Snowboards, Troppman said.
“It was the first time the worlds really meant something because it was riders from all over the world that came to Breckenridge,” Troppman said. “That was the catalyst and kickoff. It sent snowboarding on its way to more than just a sport, to a lifestyle and a thing that could be done all over the mountains. We thought, ‘Wow, this is it,’ and it was. And Breckenridge was pivotal to that.”
Throwing a throwdown
Three years ago, a few guys in Breckenridge decided that it was high time to honor their snowboarding heroes by bringing back those early days of the sport — the camaraderie of the pipe competitions and the old style of riding.
“We were all kind of talking about it,” said Bob “Bobry” Aubrey, who now lives in Vail. “You’ve seen it a lot in the Olympics — people are going back to style, pulling out the old stuff again.”
Bobry, along with Zack and Jake Black, Chad Otterstrom and others, came up with the idea to host a pipe event unlike any other, a Throwback Throwdown with a unique centerpiece: a hand-dug mini pipe, a reproduction of the original pipes that were built for those first competitions back in the ’80s.
The format of the laid-back competition was and still is two-fold, with a run through the modern 22-foot superpipe in the morning and a follow-up jaunt through the mini pipe in the afternoon.
“They have us old fossils ride the superpipe in the morning, too, which is quite entertaining,” Troppman said. “It’s a challenge for us old guys — it’s pretty intimidating. We have a blast and then we go down to the mini pipe, hike up and down — that’s what we did back in the day was hike up and down and ride snowboards, no lifts, no nothing, so that’s one of the key elements for us.”
“It’s kind of to show a little bit of the past and what we’re doing now, the evolution of halfpipe riding,” Black said of the two-pipe configuration. “Anything goes in more of a jam format, rather than specific runs. It’s a fun mix of where it began and what we’re up to now.”
Only tricks with no more than 540 degrees of rotation are allowed, so riders have to get creative with straight airs, alley oops, huge slow spins and handplants — old-school, stylized tricks that typically aren’t showcased in modern comps.
Black said for the past two years, some of the riders in the event have even come out to help shape the pipe, just as they would have for contests in the ’80s and early ’90s.
“It’s time to hang out, goof off and throw snow at each other, and then see everyone get in and ride it,” Black said. “There’s a lot of imperfections because a lot of the time you are doing it at 7 at night.
“It’s fun to really see the older generation that used to do this on a daily basis. They aren’t quite as gung ho as they used to be, but they are in awe because it’s what they remember doing. Then you see the guys who are competing today in something that’s different from the realm of what their everyday life is.”
Bridging the generation gap
Bobry enlisted Troppman’s help to publicize that first event three years ago.
“He was working for Vail Associates, and he wanted to do an interview with Steve Link and I, a little promo before the first one,” Troppman said. “We showed him some of the old molds from Summit Snowboards.”
“I thought it was cool because I’m nobody when it comes to snowboarding, just the guy who’s been doing it forever,” Bobry said. “But to help to rebuild those old halfpipes — it was really cool to make, all the hand-dug stuff.”
Troppman, Bobry and Black will all be riding in this year’s Throwback Throwdown, along with some of the younger champions of the sport.
“The coolest thing about it is I’m 39, there’s kids in there who are 15, and guys who are way older than me,” Bobry said. “To get to hang out with Jeff Grell and to be able to ride a pipe in a loose comp with people who are all ages and abilities — reminds me of how things used to be, not big money or high end.”
Bobry’s also interested to see what kinds of crazy boards riders pull out for the mini pipe and has been scouting friends for a sweet ride of his own. Black had a bit of insight.
“Chad Otterstrom, he’s been involved since the beginning, he’s riding an original Lib Tech snowboard,” Black said. “There might be some Shaun Palmer, early ’90s boards, with bigger shapes, wild sidecuts. I think we’re going to see a couple of really wild ones.”
In addition to his Snurfer, Troppman will be bringing along a massive 212-centimeter board to drop into the halfpipe. He said the riding is fun, but he’s most psyched for the energy and vibe of the town and spending time with the people who have supported and continue to support snowboarding through its evolution.
“The Throwback, for us, is a time to meet up with old friends and ride with them, as well as see young friends we don’t know, through the frame of snowboarding, gain a perspective of where we’ve been, where snowboarding is going and progressed to — it’s all part of the magic that we find in it,” Troppman said.