Retrofitted: Jazz, retro onesies and Nordic knickers with Steve Immer, aka Captain Powder
June 28, 2016
Early on Saturday morning, after another round of spring snow brought yet another 11 inches to Breckenridge, Captain Powder was in his element.
"Glorious runs out there today," said Captain Powder, aka Steve Immer, a longtime Breckenridge local and one of the most colorful characters in a town teeming with colorful characters. Just look at his self-appointed moniker: Captain Powder, modeled after Captain America because, as he said, "I always thought he was cool."
"I have a superhero persona, if that's amusing to you," Immer told me while lounging in his '80s-era Descente one-piece ski suit, his left leg crossed over the right to expose thick, woolen socks beneath the onesie. "I'm Captain Powder, superhero. My theory is that anyone can be a superhero. You don't have to go in front of a committee. Everyone has that energy — you just need to discover it for yourself."
By the time I met with Immer at the Nordic center day lodge it was just after 2 p.m. The morning snow was no longer falling and the powder on Peak 8 was chopped to shreds, but Captain Powder was still beaming and laughing and riding the superhero high he gets after a morning of knee-deep turns on one of his favorite runs, Ptarmigan. It's sort of a hidden gem, he said, a tiny sliver of black diamond heaven wedged between Pika and White Crown below North Bowl. His theory (one of several dozen): Most skiers skip Ptarmigan because they'd rather hit Cucumber and Horseshoe bowl to the south or Pika and White Crown on either side.
Since 1984, Immer has lived and worked and played in Summit County. He's a native of Portland, Oregon, a self-proclaimed dweeb who picked up skiing shortly after graduating from high school in 1960. He learned to ski powder at Mount Hood, but the powder he charged back then wasn't the kind of soft, fluffy, blower snow he's been charging in Colorado since the '80s. No, it was… well, I'll let Captain Powder explain:
"You've heard of Sierra Cement?" he said, more of a rhetorical question than anything. "That's California. In Washington and Oregon, we get the same thing, only there we call it Cascade Concrete — thick, globby snow."
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I told him that I've never been skiing anywhere except for Colorado, Montana and New Zealand. I'm kind of spoiled that way — always luscious continental powder. How does glop impact your technique?
"You can't ski normal in Cascade concrete," he told me. "You have to really drop your knees and then almost lift your skis off the snow just for survival, just to stay above the glop. My Captain Powder skills I learned as sheer survival in the northwest. It's muscle memory now."
That was nearly 50 years ago by now, but Captain Powder's powers don't fade with time. If anything, Immer is almost at his best at 73 years old. Part of it is muscle memory, part of it are his '70s-era Scott poles — "The final pair still in active duty," he told me — but most of it is his connection to music. See, music and skiing are one in the same, he believes. Immer is also a jazz vibraphone player (think of it as a miniature xylophone) who loves the freethinking fluidity of improvisation.
"As my jazz improved, I noticed that my skiing improved," Immer said, now leaning excitedly forward in his chair to mime the action of playing his vibraphone. "In jazz, solo practice is called 'wood shedding.' Have you heard that phrase?"
No, I hadn't. Where's it come from?
"It's because jazz musicians were so ostracized," he continued, a natural storyteller to the core, just like any good jazz musician should be. "Jazz came out of New Orleans whorehouses, more or less, and so you had to go behind your home, go to the woodshed, because it wasn't proper to practice in public. As I would woodshed — as I would practice my vibraphone in the living room — I would notice that my hand eye coordination improved. And skiing is all about hand-eye coordination."
For Captain Powder, it comes back to growing up on Cascade Concrete: you learn to use your entire body, upper and lower, all at once, and only the best of the best are able to improvise with conditions, terrain, light and more while still looking damn good.
"I'm a skinny little dweeb who couldn't play normal sports because I was skinny, but skiing is perfect for nerds," he said. "It's all about balance and timing and rhythm, and even dorks can develop rhythm and timing. You don't have to be a handsome hunk. I really believe the best sport for dorks is skiing."
These days, Immer splits his time just about evenly between downhill skiing and cross-country skiing at the Breck Nordic center, found just across the street from his condo of 25-plus years. Captain Powder's cross-country persona doesn't have a name per se, but it does have accolades: At 72 years old, he decided to enter his first Nordic race at the Gold Run Rush 10K classic in Frisco — and won.
"Most people have whatever athletic success they're going to have in high school or college," he said, revealing the '70s-era polyester cross-country suit he's wearing beneath the Descente onesie. "But me, no, it was at the age of 72 when I won my age bracket in the Frisco Gold Rush. That's kind of cool, right? That's why I kind of groove on the aging process — 70 is the new 40 anyway."
But what did Immer do before embracing his Captain Powder alter ego? I wondered. Or, for that matter, what did he do before moving to Breckenridge for a year and never leaving?
"I've noticed it's irrelevant where you lived before Summit County," Immer said before launching into another trademark theory. A Captain Powder-ism, maybe?
"It's like the French Foreign legion," he said. "When you join that, no one cares what you did before then. You can take on a new name, a new identity, and it's about the same in Summit County. I was in the world of government, business — I did all sorts of crazy things — and when I came to Summit County I was having a stupid guy's mid-life crisis. Where do you go when that happens? Summit County."
And Captain Powder hasn't left since.
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