Backcountry pow surfing and the hunt for Colorado’s great, white waves
March 17, 2017
For years now, Matt Quam has dreamed of riding an untouched line hiding in plain sight within a few hundred yards of Swan Mountain Road. It's a relatively short slope on the northern side of Sapphire Point, where low-angle turns and mellow pitches are far removed from the big, bad, burly terrain surrounding Lake Dillon on all sides in the Tenmile Range, Gore Range and Continental Divide.
But dizzying vertical hardly matters to Quam. These days, all the California native needs to have fun in his adopted playground is a pair of waterproof shoes and one of two boards: a surf-inspired pow surfer or a skate-inspired powder skate. Both come without bindings and both remind Quam of his teenage years, ripping concrete bowls and pipes in the birthplace of skateboarding.
"That's the great thing, is you can take this down anything with a pitch," said Quam, who moved to Summit County from beaches of San Clemente in 1994 and has been here ever since. "I've done runs right off the highway in Silverthorne, or we've taken the sleds way back into the backcountry. That's the great thing about pow surfing — it forces you to look at your terrain in a different way. You can think, 'I'll get three turns on that and have a blast.'"
Tell a skier or snowboarder that they'll get just three or four decent turns and they'll laugh — it's hardly worth the effort. But on a backcountry powder skate or pow surfer, Quam says even the smallest lines are suddenly fun again, from the slopes of Swan Mountain to the wide-open bowls at Loveland Pass. He picked up snowboarding soon after moving to Colorado — it was only natural to stand sideways on the lone piece of early-'90s boarding equipment — but he switched to snowskating when the first models from Burton and Salomon debuted in the early 2000s. Something about the freedom of snowskating appealed to him, even back then, he says, and he's only fallen deeper in love with the sport over the years.
"I like not dealing with bindings at all," said Quam, who hosted the first official snowskate contest at Copper Mountain in the 2000s, and then revived it as a jam-style contest earlier this season, dubbed the Quam Invitational. "I grew up on skateboards, so it was a natural thing to want to do this as soon as I saw it."
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Earn your surf turns
Quam picked up binding-free riding and never looked back, but like thrill-seeking skiers and snowboarders, he soon wanted something more. And like his peers, he found it in the backcountry.
"I enjoy the peacefulness of the backcountry, with no crowds, no ropes, no one telling me I can't go where I want to go," Quam said. "It's the freedom, you know? Of course it's dangerous to be out there, but so is the ski area these days."
On powder days, Quam usually spends the first hour or two of the day at Arapahoe Basin riding his powder skate, where in-bounds runs off Lenawee lift have the perfect mix of pitch and flat for warm-up cruising. As soon as the gate drops at Loveland Pass, he packs up the Jeep and drives to the summit for fresh, untouched backcountry lines. His weapon of choice depends on the conditions: pow surfer for deep, blower powder, and powder skate for windblown or day-old snow.
"It's like surfing and having a quiver," Quam said. "I have different boards for different conditions. If it's a 20-inch powder day in the backcountry, I'm going to take that pow surfer. The feeling is unreal. On a slightly variable day, where there might be hard spots and you need an edge — like A-Basin, riding the Beavers — the pow skate is good. You wouldn't want a pow surfer back there."
These days, Quam's go-to powder skate is a 152-centimeter custom deck-and-ski kit from Predog Snowskates, a California company owned by his friend, Jim Spires. Spires is another lifelong skateboarder who's done just about everything imaginable on the snow — snowboarding, skiing, telemarking, Nordic skiing — but who keeps coming back to snowskating, year after year.
"I don't like things hanging off my feet," Spires said simply. "Skis aren't bad, but the weight of them — when they're hanging off your feet on the chair — it's just uncomfortable. When I snowskate, I don't feel the constraint of the binding that's holding your feet in one position."
Next big thing, next year
Snowskating is only a fraction of the snow-sports world, but it's slowly growing every season. Big-name brands like Burton have stepped out of the market, giving way to small companies like Predog, Hovland Snowskates, Ralston Snowskates and Circuit Snowskates.
For Spires, who founded Predog in 2011, the trick has been designing and fine-tuning the truck, or arm, that holds the upper deck to the lower ski. He took what worked on the original boards — one deck, one skate, two trucks — and fiddled with the physics until they carved on command. The first Burton decks weren't designed to carve, he says, and "that's why they sucked so bad."
"The funny thing with snowskates is that things are changing all the time, so there isn't one skate for one type of condition," said Spires, who has designed several different models and sizes of skis for conditions ranging from groomers to deep powder. "It's not that the shapes are changing — it's that the snowskating is changing."
While more people take up snowskating, backcountry powder skating is still an oddity. Quam even thinks pow surfing is more popular than powder skating in the backcountry, simply because a pow surfer is easier to handle on deep days. The market has been very slow to grow — there are only a handful of pow surfer companies, including Grassroots Powdersurfing in Utah, founded by another one of Quam's friends — but the interest is there. In some ways, he says, it always has been.
"If you got to the (Colorado Ski and Snowboard) museum in Vail, you'll see pow surfers from the '60s, maybe even all the way to the '30s, when guys are riding a piece of wood with a rope," Quam said. "It's all how you want to take it. I guess we're in the modern era of strapless stuff, and it actually works well. It's not just a plank with a rope."
That culture of experimentation keeps Spires and his snowskate company afloat. He's a father of four who works 40 hours per week for a tech firm in SoCal, but the engineer in him wants to tweak and improve on past designs. He's made roughly 1,500 snowskates over the years and sells almost exclusively online, where the teensy binding-free community is easy to find — no matter where they ride.
"If you look at the snowskate market, we're talking about very small groups of people in very small areas," Spires said. "They care a lot about snowskating, but it's not gigantic by any means. They've been saying for the past 20 years that snowskating is the next big thing in 10 years. It's really just a sport of passion."
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