A step into a workshop south of Crested Butte reveals a man mixing chemicals with scientistlike precision. Brett Conover is in the throes of his latest creation.
Minutes later, he’s spreading epoxy between layers of fiberglass and wood with a respirator affixed to his face — a process he’s repeated enough times that his movements resemble a machine.
Conover’s company, Groundswell Snow Craft, was born out of a surf-inspired love for sliding on snow. Groundswell specializes in handcrafted, three-dimensional (meaning they’re contoured on the bottom, unlike a flat snowboard) boards used for surfing powder — or, as it’s come to be known, “pow surfing.”
In recent years, construction of such boards has splintered in numerous directions, but Conover appears to have found a niche. His boards are built of multiple layers of wood and fiberglass sandwiched together with epoxy in a 3D shape containing channels — or indentations that run lengthwise — much like a surfboard.
As the pow surfing wave has spread, Groundswell has found appeal among a wide range of snow-based thrill seekers — from dyed-in-the-wool snowboarders to Olympic halfpipe skiers Aaron Blunck and Torin Yater-Wallace, to whom Conover has sold his boards.
Ranging in price from $400-$800, however, the man behind Groundswell maintains that craftsmanship is equally as important as the ride.
“In my mind, they’re individual art pieces,” Conover said.
Inspired by surfing
Raised in the suburbs north of New York City, Conover began surfing in high school and learned to snowboard in the nearby Green Mountains.
He graduated from Western Colorado University in 2006 with a degree in recreation and business. Over the next decade, he coached snowboarding to high school athletes, some of whom went on to the Olympics.
But while living in Aspen and coaching, a new kind of board-riding sparked his interest — a style that blurred the line between surfing and snowboarding. This form of snowboarding without bindings proved fun even when avalanche danger was elevated or Conover was by himself in the backcountry.
His launch into the realm of pow surfing had begun. After moving back to Crested Butte, Conover and a friend in 2010 began dabbling with producing solid wood, steam-bent boards in their boss’s garage.
Yet, the craft at that point was largely experimental. The boards never actually were ridden.
“I love the aesthetic of being able to build something and ride it, but I’m also kind of a gear geek,” Conover admitted. “Until they hit a certain level of performance, I’d still rather ride something better.”
Conover looked to other companies’ board designs, but he wanted to produce a product with “less dramatic” curves for improved maneuverability. That is, channels that weren’t as deep and “rocker” — or curve from tip to tail — that was less extreme.
Miah Wheeler bought one of Groundswell’s first generation of boards about five years ago.
“I was instantly hooked,” said Wheeler, development director at Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club. Seeing potential also led Wheeler to get involved on the business side of Groundswell — including building a website and helping the company acquire a logo.
Since then, however, Groundswell has developed additional generations of product — each with a handful of notable improvements from prior iterations.
“Brett is definitely committed. He’s like a mad scientist,” Wheeler said. “The (latest) generation has rocker throughout, much like a surfboard. He’s going back toward his surfing roots.”
Surfing has inspired Groundswell boards in more ways than one. Not only does riding the product provide freedom of movement not capable with bindings, but Conover has long been fascinated by surfboard craftsmanship.
“Surfers can build something and go ride it,” he said. “That is out of normal reach for snowboarding.”
‘Best boards in the world’
Conover uses a mold for the boards manufactured at Integrated Design Solutions (IDS) in Gunnison with the company’s computer numeric control, or CNC, machine.
“We took a 3D model and figured out the shape of the mold, basically reverse engineered it, and then cut the mold for him” out of high-density foam, explained Andris Zobs of IDS.
While IDS specializes in crafting climbing and playground structures installed in public places throughout the country, Zobs noted that the company has worked on a few other prototype products.
“It’s not a main part of our business, but the important part is that we love supporting other makers in the valley,” Zobs said. “We look for ways to help and share resources.”
In recent summers, Conover has headed south to work for Sled Chile, a snowmobile guiding operation. The experience has helped open his eyes to not only different types of snow surfboards — the crew possesses a quiver of them — but what he wants in the products he builds himself.
“It has been really cool to put people on them who have never ridden them, and get feedback from people who have ridden a lot of different ones,” he said.
Sled Chile guide Skylar Holgate — who also guides heli skiing in Silverton, Colo., and Alaska — said Groundswell boards typically accompany groups into the field each day. He’s found that the boards strike a “perfect medium” between flat snowboards without bindings and those with more dramatic curves.
“It doesn’t have to be perfect pow,” for Groundswell boards to perform well, Holgate said. “It’s the first time pow surfing that I haven’t needed perfect pow.”
That performance is the objective for which Conover has strived for nearly a decade.
“I didn’t want to push boards that weren’t ‘there,’” he said. “But now they’re there. I do think these are the best boards in the world.”
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)