In the Breckenridge terrain park with snowskater Clayton Conway and friends (video)
Snowskate vs. snow deck
Snowskates and snow decks are not created equal. In fact, the two aren’t even the same thing in the eyes of Summit County resorts. Here’s a quick look at the rules and restrictions for both devices.
Snowskate: The formal term for a board (usually plastic or wood) with no metal edges or attached ski. Think of it as a skateboard without wheels or trucks. These aren’t allowed at any ski area in the county, and with good reason: they don’t carve.
Snow deck: The formal term for a deck with metal edges and usually an attached ski. These are allowed at all resorts with a few restrictions.
Copper: Snow decks are allowed on all frontside chairlifts (no tow ropes or bowls) with a leash or other retention device.
Breckenridge: Snow decks are allowed on all chairlifts (again, no tow ropes) with a leash. They aren’t explicitly banned on extreme terrain like Imperial Chair and Kensho at Peak 6, but use your best judgement.
Keystone: Snow decks are allowed on all chairlifts with a leash.
A-Basin: Snow decks are allowed on the Molly Hogan, Lenawee Mountain and Black Mountain Express lifts only. Don’t forget the leash.
On a gorgeous April day in the thick of February the snowskaters came out to play at Breckenridge. But first, we had to get everyone wrangled together.
It was about 9:30 a.m. when I arrived at Ski Hill Grill on Peak 8 to meet with Clayton Conway, a 33-year-old New York native who’s spent the past decade “doing the mountain thing” in Colorado after doing the same thing out east following high school. Conway was talking with a photographer and two friends, 44-year-old Lyle Hansberger of Denver and 30-year-old Angelica Clemmer of Delaware, and all were were figuring out the best plan of attack for the day. Everyone in the then-small group was dressed in your typical snowboard gear — goggles, helmets, facemasks, the works — with one major exception: no ski or snowboard boots.
That is, everyone except for Clemmer, who told me that boots work just fine with her snowskate as long as she ties them loosely. She’s a lifelong surfer who now splits her time between Breckenridge and the California coast, where she surfs in summer before snowskating in the winter. This is her tenth season on a snowskate, and like Conway or Hansberger, she hardly thinks twice about strapping into a snowboard these days. The snowskate is her baby, her home away from home, her surfboard without the surf.
“For me, the snowskate is an all-mountain weapon,” Clemmer said, adjusting the laces on her boots while her friends walked around in Scotchguarded skateboard shoes. “It’s not like a powder board, where you have to take that board into powder to enjoy it. I can take the snowskate anywhere I want. Everyone loves it and that just blows my mind.”
Clemmer and the rest continued getting ready, talking and laughing and joking around, as more snowskaters seemed to come from the woodwork. There was Mark Bellncula, a 47-year-old Colorado native who had only been on a snowskate twice before; Jimmy Leaphart, a 50-year-old former pro skateboarder from the Carolinas who runs the town of Breck’s skateboard program; Gene Knowles, a 48-year-old who skated with Leaphart as a teenager and makes the annual pilgrimage to Breck for snowskating.
It’s an eclectic crew — motley was the first word that came to mind — but everyone milling around the table at Ski Hill Grill shared two things: a deep love of snowskating and the fringe culture (or maybe just freedom) it represents. The sport has been allowed at Breckenridge for more than a decade, but it’s only in the past three seasons that all Vail Resorts properties have allowed the contraptions, which are essentially skateboards with a single ski in place of wheels. The two requirements: metal edges on the riding surface and a leash to prevent runaway gear.
“At first you couldn’t take the skates on the mountain, so we were stuck in the back yard with a little rail or something else you built,” Clemmer said. “Now, when they opened it up, it’s been an entirely new world out there.”
It was a little before 10 a.m. and Conway was popping from group to group, convincing guys to stick around just a second longer for the rest of the crew to get ready. He makes the trek from his new home in Fairplay to Breckenridge at least once or twice a week, and so he was in no major hurry to get outside. But warm and sunny stunners in the middle of February are rare — well, in most seasons they are — and like everyone else I was itching to get on the slopes. I wanted to see the crew and snowskates in action, just like the dozens of curious bystanders who watched as Conway and Clemmer and the rest walked past with decks in hand to the base of Colorado SuperChair.
“Everyone is doing there own thing with this sport,” Conway said, pointing to the different decks and modifications: a long ski on Hansberger’s, rubberized grip-tape on Leaphart’s. “It’s like old snowboard stuff, where it’s fun to see what someone is doing for shoes, or a leash, or something else.”
“This is the evolution, you know?” Leaphart said, overlapping slightly with the end of Conway’s thought. “You are watching a frog get webbed feet, you’re watching the evolution of the sport.”
But what about the sport itself? I wondered. Is the evolution making it as competitive and acrobatic and untouchable as modern snowboarding and freeskiing?
“It’s new and fresh to a lot of people,” Conway said as someone, somewhere, makes a comment about the binding-less group. “Everyone has seen a triple flip at this point, but a backflip on a snowskate? Innovation is huge in snowskating. Any time you’re inventing or making something on your own it opens up the world. I see myself as part of the ski industry — not a skater or a surfer.”
We loaded the lift, with snowskaters first on foot, the photographer and I next strapped to suddenly awkward planks.
“This is a legitimate sport, but it’s still in its infant stages,” Conway said. “It can grow into whatever it wants to be. It can be its own beast, and even though it’s been around for a while it has so much potential to grow.”
Homemade decks, homemade tricks
Unlike the triples and quads of snowboarding, snowskating in action looks kind of hard and totally doable at the same time. We unloaded at the top of the lift, took a few group photos, then finally got ready for the first lap through Park Lane terrain park. It’s Conway’s stomping grounds, and after more than a decade of snowskating he’s become the local face of the sport.
“I think I get a lot of recognition because I ride Breckenridge,” Conway said a few days after our laps through the park. “It’s super busy — people are always throwing down — and so that gets me more visibility. There aren’t many people doing what I’m doing on a snowskate, but this is just what I’ve always wanted to do.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Conway can hold his own with the snowboard and ski pros. He’s a former snowboarder whose bag of snowskate tricks runs deep: a classic method, a skate Christ air, that crowd-pleasing backflip, full runs through the 22-foot superpipe.
“Once you do a Christ air, man, it’s just an amazing feeling,” Conway said. “It’s basically the same as hitting jumps on a board but you don’t have that strapped-in factor. You get the skateboard feeling.”
Oddly enough, a lifelong skateboard veteran (and vert-ramp handplant master) like Leaphart says he doesn’t usually take his snowskate into the terrain park. He’s more likely to ride up Imperial chair on a powder day, or hike into the backcountry for glades.
“I ride everything and with anyone,” Leaphart said from the top of Park Lane. “It’s interesting to ride with a crew that’s this diverse, with different backgrounds.”
When Leaphart, Clemmer and most everyone else headed off to freeride, Conway and Hansberger stuck to the park for photos. In summer, Hansberger is a pro longboarder for Never Summer, and although he doesn’t quite see the snowskate as an extension of his pavement deck, he finds the same rush on both.
Like Conway, he’s also a perpetual tinkerer. The two first met each other about three years ago when Hansberger noticed that Conway modified his snowskate with an Icelantic ski — the exact same mod he had made to be faster, bigger and more stable in the park.
“I couldn’t wait around for someone to make what I wanted,” said Conway, who now has a pro-model snowskate through one of the sport’s few gear manufacturers, Hovland Snowskates. “I was progressing at a rate that I had to build what I wanted, to my specifications, like the first samurai sword. Then I heard what you could and couldn’t do, people telling me, ‘You can’t hit jumps on that thing!’”
Not like that stopped Conway or Hansberger for the photo shoot. Conway hit the first Park Lane jump several times, throwing huge methods and Christ airs before heading to the superpipe for a lap. Like most days at Breck, the pipe was filled with high-level amateurs and pros, the sort of riders who have 900s and 1080s on command and usually soar some 8-10 feet above the lip.
Then Conway dropped in and the line of snowboarders suddenly stopped, held in place, like watching a fish walk onto shore. He had massive first few hits — at least two or three feet above the lip, or some 25-odd feet above the pipe bottom — then finished with an alley-oop and final-hit switch-up. As he rode to a stop, a snowboarder no older than 16 ran down to him.
“Dude, that was insane!” the snowboarder said. Conway smiled wide and said thanks.
“Like, it would be so awesome if you could get a Crippler on that,” the snowboarder said as Conway explained how he’s been toying with a McTwist, or just some kind of halfpipe invert.
“Even a McTwist would be sick!” the snowboarder said, twisting his body to mime the movement. “Dude, that’s still just insane.”
Conway thanked him again and rode past the big-line jumps to end at a down box, where he and Hansberger went back and forth with noseslides and presses for a final few photos. It’s a day off for both skaters, but soon Hansberger will head to Denver for a night shift and Conway will drive back to Fairplay, where he had spent the previous week unearthing the driveway at his new, secluded home following the last big snowstorm.
“It’s the same Summit County working-man struggle as anyone else, but it’s a little more 90-pound rucksack, a little less getting up at noon,” Conway said. “We work hard and play hard, but that’s the mountain lifestyle. We do it because we love it.”
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