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Snowboarders find rails a cool ride

Local pro Brett Butcher shares a few of his favorite flips

If you see a bunch of Portland kids driving a truck full of snow, don't assume they're frat boys planning a wacky, themed kegger. They're just as likely to be snowboarders, such as local pro rider Brett Butcher. He and his buddies specialize in rail sliding (snowboarding down metal handrails), a 'sport' that defies not only gravity, but perhaps common sense.

First, find a long handrail. Then lay ice or snow at the top and bottom of the steps, for the approach and for the landing. Then slide down the rail. One advantage over skateboarding is that wheels don't get in the way, which lets you spin as you descend.

You might ask how often do handrails and snow appear in the same place around here, and can it be good to grind a $500 board against cold steel?

'Me and my friends get ice shavings from the back of the skating rink near me. The Zamboni dumps them out back,' says the 22-year-old Butcher, who, when not away filming snowboard videos like 'Night of the Living Shred,' lives in Tigard with his mom. 'We do it at Jackson Middle School because it has this great 22-step handrail. You can even use it when school's in session, and nobody bothers you. In downtown Portland the businesses and cops move you along real quick.'

Rail sliding comes downtown in a big way this Saturday evening. Snow from Mount Hood Meadows will be trucked in and laid in Pioneer Courthouse Square for the second annual Red Bull 'Heavy Metal' event. Four temporary rails of different shapes also will be built. Twenty pros including Butcher will compete for two cash prizes of $10,000.

Last year the event was held in Niagara Falls, N.Y., on existing rails at a convention center. Portland was picked for its healthy boarding (and skating) scene, and because the square makes a great amphitheater. And because we have truckloads of snow. Just in case, a snow machine will be on hand.

Onlookers are welcome to watch the two 45-minute 'jam sessions,' in which athletes perform tricks with names such as the '15-flat-15,' the 'nollie to backside tailslide,' and the 'Cab 270.' But for safety reasons, the public won't be allowed to join in.

'You can get a bit scraped up on the concrete,' Butcher says. 'We rarely wear helmets.' Damage to a board is more of a worry. 'If you take a new board to a rail it could be unridable when you're done. I only use old boards, when they've lost their pop (flexibility). Sometimes they just need a regrind, but if you run into a support you can completely blow your edge out.'

Rail jams only recently have gone mainstream; one was featured at the prestigious Burton U.S. Open in Vermont in March. Butcher says it all started in about 1994 with a crew from Summit County, Colo., which included boarders such as Nate Cole, Rowan Rogers and Portland resident Pat Abramson. 'Skateboarders needed something to do in the winter,' Butcher says.

After a few years it faded in popularity, until Salt Lake City's Farmington Crew of J.P. Walker and Jeremy Jones brought it back on the videotape 'Simple Pleasures.'

Butcher has not invented any moves of his own. 'Everything's pretty much been done, but I like doing the backside slipslide, where you go from the right of the rail, swing your tail over, then go down backwards, looking over your shoulder.'

He rides for Exit Real World, a snowboard shop on Northwest Glisan Street, and is part owner of Andromeda Snowboards. So what about Pioneer squares who fancy trading Hacky Sack for something a bit edgier? How can your average teen afford to trash a snowboard?

'Uh, have a good job?' he suggests.

Contact Joseph Gallivan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..