Best of 2015: On The Hill correspondent Z Griff hunts for snowboarding’s roots
January 3, 2016
Editor's note: This article first appeared in the March 28 edition of the Summit Daily. Catch Z Griff five times a week this winter as host again of On The Hill.
On a bright, mild Friday morning before the Throwback Throwdown competition in Breckenridge, Zach Griffin is thinking about Shane McConkey as he walks from Coffee Depot to his apartment above the Conoco station on the south end of town.
"Yo, let's do coffee at my house," reads a text from Z Griff shortly before I leave my house to visit his. It's a nickname, and a catchy one at that, but it's the sort of nickname that has almost fully replaced his legal name — at least for friends, family and anyone who knows him as host of the Summit Daily's online feature "On the Hill," a regular tribute to the Summit ski scene as seen through the fisheye lens of a GoPro camera and equally off-kilter eyes of the 31-year-old Z Griff.
It's about 7 a.m. — hardly an early morning for the lifelong snowboarder and former Burton U.S. Open competitor — and before catching a bus to the gondola lot for the latest episode of "On the Hill," he needs breakfast. And coffee. And he's willing to share.
"I'm gonna go grab us breakfast sammies," the text continues. "Bacon, egg and cheese, or sausage, egg and cheese?"
I pull into the Conoco parking lot and Z Griff meets me about five minutes later, sandwiches in hand. We wind behind the Conoco and climb a set of steep wooden stairs leading to his apartment. On the landing near the front door are snowboards, boots, a couch or two, an ashtray, several PBR tallboys and some kind of strange, almost surreal wind chime made with discarded bits of metal.
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The original plan was to chat for a bit before filming a preview of the hand-dug Throwback halfpipe, but after walking into his "humble abode," as he calls it, Z Griff hits me with a bombshell: He might not be able to compete this season for allegedly ducking a rope.
"Those first years I had to beg my way in," Z Griff says, handing me a sandwich before disappearing to brew coffee in the nearby kitchen. I take a seat on a couch in the living room, which doubled as his bedroom for a few weeks here and there before he officially moved in about a year ago.
"But then I got in, and suddenly I was part of this contest I would be in for the rest of my life," Z Griff says in a mellow tone that was his trademark long before he debuted with "On the Hill" this year. "That's all I really ever wanted, you know? Get invited to an event forever. I've been trying to tell this story about a local's winter, which is go here, do that, see this, and it ends in this contest celebrating 30 years of snowboarding in Breck. But now it's like a movie director, where the end of my movie might get chopped off."
For the past decade, ever since moving from the East Coast to Colorado, Z Griff has lived and worked and played in Breckenridge. It's no wonder the majority of his "On the Hill" segments are filmed at the resort — he knows it like the back of his hand.
And it certainly doesn't hurt that numbers are on his side, if he were the sort to read into odd numerical coincidences: As Breck toasts 30 years as a snowboarder's mecca, Z Griff celebrates 20 years on a board and 10 years in his adopted hometown.
While waiting for the coffee to brew, Z Griff begins absently sweeping the linoleum with a battered broom.
"It's like Shane McConkey," he says, still sweeping. "He got banned from Vail, but he didn't give a f***."
When the coffee is done, Z Griff brings me a cup, sits down with his own and pauses for a few beats. McConkey was easily one of the craziest crazies in the world of extreme skiing, a true nomad who died due to equipment failure during a ski BASE jumping accident in 2009. Before then, he lived in Vail for a brief stint until the early '90s, when he was disqualified from a mogul competition and later poached the course, stark naked, eventually leading to his lifetime ban.
Z Griff looks out the living room window toward Main Street.
"But I love Breck, and that was the saddest thing when I thought, 'I'm going to stand up against Vail Resorts like McConkey, because I love Breck,'" Z Griff says. "This place is just the absolute best. It's my home."
ROAD TO HOME
As we hop on the maroon line bus to head from Z Griff's apartment to the mountain, he sets aside the Throwback uncertainty to just talk about snowboarding. His ties run deep: After switching from skiing to boarding in sixth grade — around the time he convinced Ross Powers to sign a poster at the U.S. Open — he progressed rapidly, eventually earning a spot at the 2004 U.S. Open at 18 years old.
But then something odd happened. First, Z Griff cut his long, scraggly hair. Then, an Air Force official at the U.S. Open noticed him. The military offered the young, hungry snowboarder a spot in a 2004 "We've Been Waiting for You" campaign ad. He accepted, and within a few weeks was courted by Hollywood.
"I think one of the reasons I got it was because I was an 18-year-old kid who was genuinely pumped to be here, snowboarding, doing what I loved," Z Griff says. "But I was 18, hell-bent and cocky, fitting to be a snowboarder, and I walked from them. I walked from Hollywood."
Whether he regrets giving stardom the finger, Z Griff doesn't say. (The Air Force ad funded his trip from New Hampshire to Colorado with his brother, but it was far from a motion picture payday.) Those early years naturally led to Z Griff's "On the Hill" gig. He's passionate about filming — his mom is a professional photographer and he made his first snowboard video at 16 years old, using a then-standard 8-millimeter camera — and before the season began, he wanted to tie his segments to Breck's 30th year of snowboarding. It would become a story some 100-plus days in the making, a through-line, documenting one landmark season as seen by a skilled athlete who never quite managed to reach Shaun White's level, or even that of his early heroes like Powers, JJ Thomas and Todd Richards.
"This is the constant fight of a snowboarder of my caliber: I'm not good enough to be that pro, the guy who gets a slopeside condo," says Z Griff, who scraped together a living as a cook before hosting "On the Hill." "Snowboarding — the f****** act of it — is an alternative life choice. Just being here, doing this is punk. …That's where it should be in some regards, for the crazies."
RIDE ANOTHER DAY
The ins and outs of Z Griff's "On the Hill" gig are complex. Yet unlike a film director, who has the luxury of time and revisions, the host has about three hours each day to plan, film, edit and post a 5-minute clip from the mountain. It's taken him to the Midwest for a few rail sessions with locals — he had to pitch the idea long before the season started — and out to Wolf Creek for waist-deep powder.
"I get what's called pow panic," Z Griff says of leaving the snow to edit and post. "But it's cool, because I've had a lot of pow in my life. And I get to snowboard for work. It's my gig — I don't have to think about going to the kitchen in two hours."
After filming a few laps through the Peak 8 superpipe and funky, hand-dug Throwdown pipe below, we load the Colorado Superchair for a final run — the closing segment for the day's contest preview. Z Griff stops chatting to quietly check his phone, laughs, then offers a high-five.
"I've been cleared to ride," Z Griff says with a look of relief. He'll be able to compete, but more than that, he's able to simply be.
"Whenever s*** goes wrong, there's always snowboarding," Z Griff says as we unload the chair. "It's like my horse, you know? It's always there. You attempt to have control, but you can never really control this."