The Happy, Wholesome, Hip-Hop Life of the MammothTeenage Death Dwarfs

Outside Magazine, November 1994

The Happy, Wholesome, Hip-Hop Life of the MammothTeenage Death Dwarfs

High on the mountaintops, the kids are winning
By Bucky McMahon

If Tommy Czeschin, star freestyler of the Mammoth Mountain Junior Snowboard Team, were to ride down this little piece of mountain the easy way, in three simple S-turns, it would take him about five seconds. Instead, the 14-year-old ninth-grader has volunteered to show his stuff. He's going to create a line of descent so convoluted, so elaborately choreographed, that watching him come down this 100 or so feet of ordinary intermediate slope will be like waiting for Michael Jackson to moonwalk the perimeter of Neverland Ranch.

When he's sure his audience is ready, Tommy points downslope, pumps one solid frontside turn, and begins doodling his interpretation of boy and board in white space. It's a flashbulb-bright spring afternoon, and with Tommy's all-black snowboard team uniform silhouetted against the snow, he looks a little like a demented crow. He's cleverly feigning flightlessness, dipping a wing and stalling, fluttering, and then scuttling in a brief burst of speed. With his arms hand-planting and the opposite ends of the board alternately touching down and springing off the snow, he cartwheels down the slope. He seems not merely superbly balanced, but incapable of falling.

Pirouetting now in tight circles, he just keeps coming on--360, 180, 360 again, as the board whacks the hard-pack, tapping out a tattoo, flexing, twanging, scraping. The syncopated beat becomes steadily louder as he draws near, but the approach is teasingly delayed. It's obvious the kid is good. He might even be a genius. Dude, I wouldn't know.

In freestyle snowboarding, style is everything. There's a world of it just in the way Tommy wears his black baseball cap, brim pulled down to the eyebrows, his whole face in shadow. He's loose-limbed and floppy, like a rangy hound pup, deliberately awkward and accidentally graceful at once. His form is a cutting-edge revision of the body's mission in space, the slacker athlete's bored negotiation of the landscape of alienation.

Not that Tommy Czeschin is a slacker. He was the snowboard team's 1994 Rider of the Year, an honor based on competitive results, solid schoolwork, and an unfailingly positive attitude. And since he lives in tiny Lake Crowley, California, 15 miles from the isolated resort town of Mammoth Lakes, it's hard to believe that he even knows he's supposed to feel alienated. Still, there he is, poster boy of the sport's marketing image: the rebellion against skiing and skiers' upward mobility, the urban rage and grunge futility infused with rap anger and thrasher rhythms. Clearly the hip-hop energy of Generation Y has completed its migration from the southern California surf scene, having survived the concrete skate-punk wastelands of greater L.A. to flourish on the sunlit Sierra slopes.

To Tommy, of course, the look comes naturally, even if the statement it makes has little to do with the personality of the kid himself. All he wants to do is ride with his buddies--all day, all winter, the rest of his life. On the slopes he has yet to find anything to be afraid of, has yet to bound anywhere he hasn't found pleasure in bounding to.

Now Tommy hits the last bump, gets good air, grabs a rail, lands fakie (tail pointing downslope), scrapes a final 180, and brakes backside. A sly smile slowly spreads across his face, and he asks, in a drawl as laid-back as California can get without laying its head in Nevada: "Did you catch all that, or would you like me to try again?"

As practice commences, Junior Snowboard Team coaches Tom Tuttle and Dean Manley gather the early arrivals just upslope from Mammoth's main lodge, so I can get at least one good look at the team while it's holding still. Tuttle and Manley are dressed in the purple uniforms of the Mammoth Mountain race department. The kids are all in fat, baggy black, like Hobbits in mourning--oversize black team jackets, balloony black trousers, black hats, black shades. But while the look may be teenage death-dwarf, these kids seem mighty wholesome and happy to me.

Right now they're stomping and kicking at the slush with their rubber-toed boots and looking ready to go. Stefan Clausen and Jason Janney are the youngest, at age 12. Eric Whitaker turned 13 a few months ago. These three can go into a mind-meld, says Tuttle, and become a unit of their own: "They are with us, but not always of us." Kari Benes, 14, is a focused competitor who won her age group at the nationals last season. Jayme Saari, 15, was a beginner just last year; she's keeping up now and making progress as a racer. Erin O'Malley, 16, one of the strongest all-around riders on the team, is consistently one of the top competitors at the nationals. Natalie Nelson, one of the oldest at 17, blew out her knee on the half-pipe and then broke her wrist and elbow when a skier dive-bombed her from out of the trees. But the coaches say she never stopped smiling or lost her optimism. "I hope she stays that way the rest of her life, because she'll have a great life," Tuttle says.

Tommy is here, and so is his best buddy, Chris Nelson, Natalie's little brother. Tommy, a natural talent with two sponsors already, is the quickest study on the team. He sees it, then does it--then does some things nobody has seen before. Both Tommy and Chris are home-schoolers, so they can schedule their studies around the best snow. The two ninth-graders probably spend more time on the mountain than anybody else. They both have trampolines and skateboard ramps in their backyards and log as much air time as a couple of young birds.

"They're all good kids," Tuttle says. "They like their lives."

There is, after all, plenty to like. For one thing, they get school credit for this. (It's their final and unanimously favorite class: seventh-period Snowboarding.) For another, they revel in the fact that, unlike their parents, they are emphatically not skiers. As snowboarders they look at the mountain, and at life, with new and different eyes.

Here at Chair One, a high-speed quad at the busy confluence of several lower-mountain slopes, that difference is obvious. Skiers glide down the mountain, coast into the lift area, and quietly get in line. There's a cool nonchalance bred from decades of tradition. Snowboarders, on the other hand, descend in peer-group packs. They come in backward and fast, jumping and spinning, spraying slush at one another, finishing off each run with some kind of personal fillip, spanking off the rutted groove of the lift-area entrance for a last little bit of superfluous air.

Snowboarders have exuberance; they're holding some kind of celebration inside every time they buckle on their boards. You can see it in the floppy jester caps and the pants fit for rodeo clowns, hear it in all the jargony neologisms: fakies, shifties, stiffies, indies, melancholies, pokes, bonks, and jibs. Like skateboarders liberated from bonking six-inch curbs and turned loose in a vertical realm of bowls as big as the Astrodome, snowboarders have taken their sport to the top of a capacious Dungeons & Dragons world of smoking peaks and yawning precipices. "It gives you a freedom like nothing else," says Kari. "It's just you and your guts, how high you can soar, what trick you can pull."

But the Mammoth Mountain Junior Snowboard Team is not just for radical shredders; Tuttle and Manley will take any kid who can get down the mountain on a board. It's a six-days-a-week commitment, though, which demands considerable stability from the young riders. That keeps the numbers down. There are four girls and 14 boys on the team. Four are home-schoolers, and the rest attend Mammoth High School. Like the junior ski team, the snowboard squad is a cooperative venture between the Mammoth Mountain race department and Mammoth High. The resort contributes coaches, use of a team van, lockers, and season lift passes; the school monitors the students' fitness and GPAs and gives them seventh-period Snowboarding. For a grade.

The team competes against squads from nearby towns, as well as in regional and national meets. The sport is divided into three main competitive disciplines, any of which the team might practice on a given day. Racing, both slalom and giant slalom, is done on carving boards, speedy, narrow planks that take hard-shell boots and hard-plate bindings that resemble conventional ski bindings. Flatland, or freestyle, employs softer boots that are buckled onto stubbier boards. Like a number of resorts throughout the country, Mammoth recently built its freestylers a snowboard park, a kind of flatland obstacle course with trash cans, picnic tables, and other ordinarily out-of-bounds objects placed in the snow solely to give riders the opportunity to "bonk" (strike with the nose or tail of the board) and "jib" (straddle and slide on). Finally, there's the half-pipe event, which features a series of aerials performed above a U-shaped launching pad carved out of the snow by a machine called a Pipe Dragon, the new Zamboni of the slopes.

The simple fact that there is a snowboard team sponsored by a big-time resort like Mammoth says a lot about how far the sport has come. Banned here until the spring of 1991, snowboarding and its two million enthusiasts have since proved themselves a force to be reckoned with. More than 90 percent of major U.S. resorts now allow snowboarding, up from 65 percent in the early nineties, and there is even talk of its becoming a demonstration sport in the next Olympics.

But enough WASPish snobbery and outright dread remains on the slopes to keep the outsider status alive. Members of the junior snowboard team have been given the stink-eye, cursed at, and ostracized as fashion victims. "There are a lot of skiers on the mountain who don't like what I represent," says team member Jayme Saari, who seems clean-cut enough for the Mouseketeers. "There have been times when skiers wouldn't ride with me on the chair just because of what I looked like," she says. Teammate Chad Martin indignantly tells the story of passing a crotchety ski-geezer ("harmlessly," he says) who then chased him down at the lift line and beat him on the head and shoulders with a ski pole. Naturally, the ski patrol winked at the skier's mad assault and scolded the bad-boy snowboarder. But whereas a few years earlier his lift pass would have been pulled simply because he was young, fast, and on one board, now the ski patroller's hands were tied. For feeling good about being bad, the Mammoth Mountain snowboarders' arrival has been exquisitely timed. Like the California surfers of an earlier Golden Age, the kids here exult in the conviction that they are in the right place, at the right moment, with the right people, doing the right thing.

Now Stefan is jumping up and down in place, just revving his engine. He says he has a problem with his snowboard: "Toe hang." The toes of his boots stick out over the frontside edge of his board.

"Cut them off," Tuttle advises. Stefan makes an interesting face. The coach has made a quick voyage into Stefan country, where silly is spoken seriously.

To the kids, who respond instinctively to the coaches' obvious prowess and constant encouragement, the big guys' attention is a balm of implicit praise. The coaches, in turn, relate to their charges in a way few adults could, having led parallel childhoods in an earlier day. Tuttle, 33 years old and last year's overall national snowboarding champion, fell in love with skiing as a child and hit the slopes as often as he could once he got his driver's license. Manley, 31, spent the bulk of his teenage years skateboarding and surfing in southern California, until he rediscovered the joy of speeding down snow-covered mountains as he had as a boy in New Mexico. Both worked their way up Mammoth's ski school and race department before devoting themselves to snowboarding. Perhaps recalling the freedom they had and the chances they took, the coaches are content to keep things loose. "We give them a lot of rope," Tuttle says, "and they haven't hung themselves yet."

Now Tuttle wonders aloud what the team might like to do today to work off their pent-up energy. "Whaddaya say? Do the top?"

Led by one of the older kids, the team takes up the refrain: "Yeah, let's do the top."

The 11,053-foot summit of Mammoth Mountain, a broad, bald volcanic dome dusted with fresh powder, gleams like a new molar in the brilliant Sierra sunshine. From down here by the main lodge, it looks like brightly colored gnats are crawling along the lip of Cornice Bowl. One by one, the team members shove off, scooting their boards into the lift line, their dark death-dwarf threads infiltrating the purples, pinks, and aquamarines of the vacationing ski crowd.

Because a recent spring storm gave the kids a couple of days off, the coaches figure the energy level will be too high for a tightly controlled practice. They've decided the best bet today will be free-riding, which means the team will be covering most of Mammoth's vast and varied terrain, starting with a warm-up lap on an intermediate run before heading to the top of the mountain.

Done pretty much nonstop and at high speed, an afternoon of free-riding is the ultimate game of tag, contested over a vertical steeplechase course strewn with all manner of natural obstacles. "From Thanksgiving to Memorial Day, the whole mountain is their playground," Tuttle says.

At midmountain the riders prepare to hop off the lift, and from the brisk efficiency of their movements one can sense the team's pulse quickening. They vault off the chairs the way my dogs burst out of the car when I take them to the woods. In one swift motion, the kids bend down and nimbly buckle in their back feet while still on the glide from the chair's momentum.

Now the pack is bunched up at a bottleneck side-entrance to the broad slope below. There's a little ramp on the right side of the bowl; it's not much taller than a speed bump, but they're mesmerized by its possibilities. They hit it one at a time, each doing a signature move: a 180 to fakie (landing backwards), or a shiftie (board twisted 90 degrees one way, body twisted 90 degrees the opposite way), or some new trick that doesn't yet have a name.

A potent pecking order is at work here, with the first off the ramp commanding the whole team's attention. Every jump is a chance to elicit howls of approval commending a hot move--"Awoooah!"--or the hoots of a comic disaster. The boys with the biggest reps--Tommy, Mikey Bierman, Joey Irons--hit the jump first, followed by whoever feels the fire of inspiration. The youngest riders usually wait and watch, learning by osmosis, down to the last, one of the littlest grommets, who blows the landing, slams, and scrambles up in feverish pursuit of the others.

Eric Whitaker, blond, lightly freckled, and blade-thin out of his baggy uniform, shows up for our meeting at the Looney Bean on his bike, wearing blue jeans and a Boston Red Sox cap and sipping soda from a jumbo Dilophosaur cup.

Sandwiched between the post office and the Chevron station on Main Street, the Looney Bean, everyone on the team agrees, is the only spot in town where you can just hang out. Fit-looking locals with early-spring tans lounge on benches on the front deck; inside there are good cappuccinos, homemade muffins, a wide range of reading material (ArtNews, Wired, a local literary publication called Th'Ink), and Pearl Jam blaring from the stereo--a little bastion of coastal California culture on the far side of Yosemite. Eric's teammate Natalie is working the counter with another girl. It's that small a town.

Eric quickly reveals a couple of pertinent details--that he has lived in Mammoth Lakes all his life; that his dad, Darryl, a coach at Mammoth Mountain, started him on skis when he was just two and a half--and then he clams up. I give the boy the third degree. Eric resists stoically, betraying his nervousness by fiddling with the alarm button on his big Shark watch. Pinned down, he admits to liking baseball. Then, perhaps sensing that I'm prepared to drink coffee and eat muffins all afternoon if necessary, he cracks, and the whole gruesome story comes pouring out. He's put away--oh, a long time ago--his Transformers, his He-Men, his McDonald's figurines, and his Nerf sports stuff. Now Eric in-line skates, and rides his bike, and plays basketball, and soccer, and rides motorcycles, and plays hockey and golf, and fishes, and water-skis. His activity list is longer than the kid himself.

The best thing about growing up in Mammoth Lakes, Eric says, is that he feels safe here, free to walk or ride his bike wherever he wants to go. The younger kids, in particular, thrive on the luxurious sense that even if they make a mistake and fall, something will catch them: the structure and stability of their lives, or the soft drifts of snow. The mountain itself seems to watch over them. They never lose sight of it, or it of them, in the course of their Mammoth Lakes days. The mountain, from whence all blessings flow.

But Mammoth Mountain hasn't always acted as safety net for those trying to forge a life in its shadow. The Sierra Gold Rush wasn't exactly a boom here; in its best year, the Mammoth Mining Company lost $100,000. By the beginning of this century, the mining-camp population of a thousand souls had dwindled to a handful, mostly misanthropic hermits living in the ghost-town ruins. A lack of mineral ore and an overabundance of snow--28 feet in December 1880--had driven off all but the crazies.

Communication with the outside world in winter was more or less impossible. The first wave of daring winter recreationists, brought in by dogsled, didn't arrive until the 1920s. Eventually the sport of getting here segued into the sport of being here, culminating with the completion of the first highway, in 1937. The first all-weather road to the mountain, the sine qua non of a functioning resort, opened in 1954, and the first double chairlift followed the next year. Mammoth Lakes, as the kids know it, is no older than their parents.

Isolation and snow still shape the town. When winter storms close Tioga Pass through Yosemite, it's a long haul around the Sierra from any major population center. Though thousands of visitors pass through each year, taking their pleasure in the slopes and the trout streams of Inyo National Forest, the town remains Mayberry small: three movie theaters, one supermarket, one brief stretch of Main Street. Mammoth Lakes is essentially a company town centered around the ski resort. Its biggest export is memories: of a weekend, or a week, or a long, happy childhood.

One can perhaps tell the shape that Eric's memories will someday assume: the best of a bountiful world, a year-round recess period.

In the winter, Eric says, he looks forward to the summer.

"And in the summer?" I ask, bearing down hard.

"I look forward to winter."

"If you won the lottery, what would you do?" I ask.

"Keep everything the same," he shoots back.

In the future, the distant one, he sees himself snowboarding, maybe in the Olympics. Or he might play professional golf. Or work at sea.

The questions I really want to ask Eric are the ones he couldn't possibly be expected to answer. What I really want to ask him is this: What does it feel like to have so much time to play with? How does it feel to look forward to high school, to look up to the older kids as almost mythic figures of infinite wisdom and splendid exploits?

I want him to tell me a story that would bring those feelings back. I want to be reminded of how it felt to be in love, for the first time, with the sport that shaped my life. To remember myself as a schoolboy and a surfer, a ninth-grader caught like a fly in amber in the center of my own time. To be reminded of what it was like to be stuck in seventh-period American History, watching the clock and looking out the window at the wasted sunshine and the offshore wind teasing the flag, until the clock let me go. To hop on my bike and fly to my friends' houses, where we'd snatch up our boards and race for the sea. For a couple of years it was a child's paradise, and I've lived with an aching nostalgia for it, like an expatriate of a perfect green land, all my adult life.

But Eric Whitaker knows only the first chapter of the adventure that awaits him, and he is keeping his peace on the subject. "It's fun," he says, and then says he has to go. I watch him ride away down Main Street, standing up on the pedals, going fast.

In surfer's terms, Mammoth Mountain is a double-up wave, a large, steep peak that has overtaken a smaller, rounder wave. And in many ways, snowboarders are like surfers who've been given the chance to live out their fantasies of impossibly huge waves, the kind school-age surfers everywhere draw on loose-leaf notebook paper during class: "That speck up there, that ant, that's me dropping in!"

From a distance, the grommets now up on the summit contemplating their descent into the black-diamond Wipe Out chute do indeed look like ants. One at a time, they buckle in, hop to the edge, and rear back on the tail of their boards--a dramatic "Heigh-ho, Silver!" gesture, boards bent bow-taut. Then they ollie off the cliff. Joey Irons, 15 years old and big for his age, is the first to leap. "A madman," as Dean Manley describes him, he's strong and fearless and will go down a chute like Wipe Out without even turning. But none of the kids shy away from the steeps. The little ones see the big ones going for it--and surviving. Then imitation, admiration, and peer pressure do their work. Yet the coaches say they never taunt one another, never say, "Come on, chicken!" They're good kids.

Arms extended like wings, each snowboarder arcs out, pauses in midair, then plummets. They seem to accelerate upon touchdown, stitching a quick line between the narrow walls of the chute, puffs of powder hanging in the wakes of hard, carved turns. There's plenty of courage on display here, and no more hesitation than if they were time-tested paratroopers.

A hundred yards upslope from my vantage point is a table-top launch called Hair Jump. The "hair" here is in speed modulation: S-turn too much before the jump and you won't catch any air; hit it flat out and you'll hurt yourself. About 50 yards above Hair Jump, the pack regroups. The coaches hit it first, hard and high, and then carve around to watch and critique. The little ones go next--braking, braking--and get a little air, just enough for furtive, split-second rail grabs. Tommy twirls an aerial 360, and then Mikey busts a fat shiftie, helicopters in midair, sticks the landing, and celebrates with a little freestyle waggle of his board.

"What's the dance for, Mikey?" coach Manley wants to know.

It's just a dance because.

A couple of the kids brake too late and get no air at all. A few stumble and flail on their landings. Natalie takes the worst slam, face-planting and cracking her sunglasses. She gets up and brushes off, laughing about the ruined frames and waving off the coaches' concerned solicitations. But the pack is already moving on. The pack waits for nobody.

In the dining room of their family's home, Natalie and Chris Nelson take a break from their books to talk about the good life their parents have made for them in Mammoth Lakes. Their folks, Dave and Stevie, manage Viewpoint Condominiums, right at the base of the resort; the kids themselves run the four coinoperated video games that serve as the complex's arcade. Chris beams as he talks about Viewpoint's heated pool, and the trampoline, and the skateboard half-pipe that he and his sister have set up in back of their unit.

Life at Viewpoint has been simple and self-contained for Chris and Natalie--it serves as a profit center, schoolhouse, playground, and family hub all in one. They speak with the year-round resident's pride of place about the long Sierra winters, about how it feels to be snowed in for days at a time, when it's dark all day and Mom makes popcorn and they all watch videos together. Last year's storms dumped marvels of snow--they could look out the upstairs windows and see neighborhood dogs scampering past on the drifts. There was good money to be made shoveling roofs in the aftermath, Natalie says. Chris's take is a little different: "You could do flips off the third story and just sink chin-deep into the snow."

But the snowboard team has been a godsend, the only link to their peers at the local high school. Some of their fondest memories are of the team's road trips, set to a headbanger soundtrack: riding on the luggage rack of the team van; hiding the keys from the coaches; trying to dye their hair purple, red, and blue with Kool-Aid, only to have it turn out a gross gray color that lasted for three days; staying up all night in cheesy motel rooms, the boys pulling the mattresses off the beds, buckling on their snowboards, and then practicing tricks on the box springs. There was the time when everyone wore their half-pipe helmets into a restaurant in Tahoe and kept them on throughout the meal, and the time at the banquet after the nationals when Natalie, generally regarded to be the nicest person on the team, spoon-launched a meatball across the room to start the infamous food fight.

Natalie is a classic California girl, as idealistic as she is pretty, outgoing, and easy to be with. As she talks about the possibility of following in the spiritual footsteps of her father, a nondenominational pastor, I see a look--part excitement, part apprehension--that I saw on the faces of some of the team's other older members when I asked what they would do at the end of their Mammoth Lakes days.

Between the youngest kids on the team and the oldest lies a great developmental gulf. It disappears to a certain extent on the hill, where the pack mentality takes over and rounds off the aging infant and the nascent adult into a common sleek creature of the hunt, but it becomes quite obvious off the slopes. In those closest to the crisis of decision, you can feel both the stress and the allure of the choices they face. This is the dilemma of the last days of an idyllic childhood: They're ready to move on, but they want to hold on to the magic. They want to hold on to the mountain.

This is certainly true of Natalie, who will graduate next year. "We took a trip to South America with a church group last April, and I think I'd like to go back," she says. "Maybe I can do some missionary work and still snowboard in the mountains there."

Like Natalie, most of the older kids say that they won't miss the town's cramped social sphere--the 1994 graduating class at Mammoth High, for instance, had only 27 students--and the maddeningly obtuse rumor mill that it engenders, commonly thought to be more frightening than the sickest black-diamond run. "If anything's going on," says Jayme Saari, "everybody in town finds out about it." And usually, she adds, nothing's really going on. Heading into her sophomore year, Jayme is already thinking about what comes next. "I might go to Australia," she says. "I've heard there are resorts there that will pay your way over to teach snowboarding." Though she's been riding for only a year, she has professional ambitions--and three more years to get good enough to make it. "There aren't that many girls in the sport yet, so I have a chance," she says. "I'll definitely go for it."

Indeed, all of the girls on the team seem more alert than the boys, more clearly awakened to the practical shape of life and to the courage demanded by change. The boys, particularly those with a couple more years to go, seem to be sleepwalking in bliss, with some of the sleeper's reluctance to look beyond the dream.

None are more devoted to the dream's pinnacle--professional snowboarding--than the two home-schooling freshmen, best buddies Chris and Tommy. They apply themselves to their schoolwork at night and in the early morning, getting up at 6 A.M. so they can be on the slopes by ten. Six hours of snowboarding, six days a week, and it's never enough. They obsess about the weather and the quality of the powder, and when they know it will be perfect they're first on the lifts and first to the top. They look down from the summit onto virgin powder, and onto the tiny town still sleeping, and onto the eternal day before them.

"You know they're building a community college here," Tommy says when asked what his future holds. "It could be finished by the time I graduate, so I might stay a while longer." It's his ace in the hole--two more years to add to the three years he has left on the team. It must seem as if he'll be able to hold onto the mountain forever.

By early June the lifts at Mammoth have closed for the season and the tawny, scruffy hide of high-desert chaparral is poking through the last patches of dirty snow. I've asked Tommy if I can visit his home, 15 miles down the highway from Mammoth Lakes, to watch him ride his snakeboard.

The Czeschins own a laundromat and self-service car wash, and live in the attached home behind their business. With the exception of a general store and post office, it looks like the Czeschins and their cats have the town of Lake Crowley all to themselves. Their backyard rises steadily toward the magnificence of Mount Flag--no roads, no lifts, just granite walls and snowcapped peak.

Tommy has salvaged a plywood quarter-pipe from a trash pile, and he's set it up for jumping in the car wash bay. The snakeboard is best described as a kind of double-jointed skateboard with footstraps, or perhaps as a pair of two-wheeled roller skates in which each rotates 360 degrees on a shared fixed chassis. A weird Dr. Seussian contraption, at any rate. Unlike a skateboard, though something like skates, you make it go by working one foot against the other. Or with the other. Tommy assures me it's fun, but it doesn't look fun--just wonderfully difficult.

As Tommy pumps away from the quarter-pipe, the motion is indeed snaky, like a sidewinder weaving its way uphill. He turns a couple of tight circles at the top of the drive, then snakes downhill, rumbles up the three-foot wooden ramp, gets about a foot of additional air--and lands without breaking his neck.

Tommy pumps the snakeboard back to the top of the drive, turns, and comes downhill again. As he makes his brief sortie into space, he grabs the snakeboard chassis just as he would grab a snowboard rail. The motion is rushed, though, more of slap, and it looks a little desperate compared to the soaring of his snowboard winters. Tommy's father sticks his head out the door. "I've seen him fall hard on that thing," he says, shaking his head in dismay before going back inside.

"One more?" Tommy asks. He works the machine back uphill, turns, and comes down. He clatters up the ramp again, springing for the sky. There's a poignancy in that little hop, juxtaposed against the silent and solemn backdrop of Mount Flag. And something touching in the knowledge, dead sure, that he'll be at this all summer, reaching for the mountain.

Bucky McMahon is a frequent contributor to Outside. He wrote about surfer Laird Hamilton in the June issue.

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