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Brothers in arms

Jacob, Luke and Ben Sutton were once considered renegade snowboarders at Cataloochee Ski Area.

They watched snowboard stunts on television shows like the X-Games and wished they could try the stuff they were seeing. So one day they got up the gumption to build their own obstacle at the edge of a slope where it seemed no one would see them. They dragged a picnic table onto the slope, packed snow banks up around its sides, and rubbed the table surface down until the snow iced up. Soon they were snowboarding up a ramp and sliding across the surface of the picnic table and catching air as they jumped off the other side.

“We’d get to hit it about an hour to two hours if we were lucky before Ski Patrol would catch us and tell us to put the picnic table back,” Ben said.

Their handiwork didn’t stop with picnic tables. They soon took to building rails — long, skinny poles to slide along like a balance beam. They packed snow into tall platforms and stacked lengths of PVC pipe or wooden logs across it.

“Just anything that was long enough to grind,” Ben said. “We were pretty much rebels with a cause.”

Cataloochee soon responded to this new demand by installing an official terrain park three years ago, one that has grown every year since then with the addition of new obstacles for performing stunts. Jacob, 17, Luke, 18, and Ben, 21, said their form of snowboarding, while not exactly mainstream, is definitely more accepted nowadays.

“Now they have people who make the jumps for us and put the rails in. And they let us have shovels,” Jacob said. The privilege to use shovels in the terrain park means the brothers can help maintain it, like fixing back the lip on jumps when it collapses or packing snow down on the tabletops. This snowboarding is called slopestyle, a freestyle format where boarders do stunts and tricks.

“We are extremists with a capitalized X,” Luke said.

The brothers compete in the regional snowboarding circuit. Unlike a speed competition where the winner is the person who gets down the slope fastest, slopestyle is more about performance, with winning based on who can pack the best-executed stunts into a run.

“It is judged on style and execution of the trick,” Ben said.

There are technical aspects that must be met for each trick, but beyond that, judging is quite subjective, like the judging of a figure-skating competition or gymnastics routine. An easier trick executed with more style trumps a harder trick with less style.

“Style is what it is all about,” Jacob said. “Put the ‘steez on the cheese.’ That means put the style on the trick.”

The brothers describe their personal type of style as “thug,” a technical term, also known as “gangster” style snowboarding. Thug style snowboarding is often identified by boarders in baggy clothes who chill out while doing tricks.

“That’s the main style today — to act like you are not even trying, just lazy,” Luke explained. Standing up to demonstrate, he slumped his shoulders forward, slouched his knees and hung his arms limply to one side. His brothers jumped in, too. Ben cocked his baseball cap sideways and threw his arms across his body in a “what up” rapper pose. Jacob hunched over, bent his knees and swung one arm back and the other forward, like the profile of a chimp mid-stride.

But for these thug-style snowboarders, style is just that — style. In real life, they aren’t very hard-core at all.

“We sit down with hot chocolate and chicken noodle soup after getting off the slope,” Jacob admitted.

The post-slope cocoa session is when the brothers critique home videos of each other’s tricks filmed that day. It includes a healthy dose of ragging on each other’s style. Humbling, yes, but also necessary, they said.

“We can’t just lie and say that was awesome and it’s not,” Jake said.

“I’d rather somebody tell me my trick was sucky than say that was awesome,” Luke said.

There’s a continuous give and take on the slope, too.

“We all three ride together,” Ben said. “And when one of us does a trick...”

“We’ll say, ‘Dude, how was the style on that trick?’” Jacob said.

“Yeah, and we’ll be like ‘You need to press it more, or whatever,’” Ben said.

The brothers scrambled over each other, sometimes all talking at once, when describing their passion for snowboarding and honing their techniques. When asked which of the brothers has the best style, they temporarily froze in their tracks.

Ben, the oldest, was the first to break the silence and tried to take credit for having the best style. He was soon back-pedaling, though, as it became apparent his little brothers weren’t going to let him get away with it.

“You can’t really answer who has the best style. Each person’s style is different,” Luke said.

“I could do a trick more styler than him and he could do a trick more styler than me,” Jacob said.

A certain language barrier arises when talking to the Sutton brothers about snowboarding. Their lingo includes words like “nose slappies, 360 scooter, shish kabob, butt bumper, tail noodles, rat airs, stale fish, rail jams and hips” to name a few.

“Tail noodles are sick. Pretty much they are hardest,” Luke said.

One of the highest compliments in the brothers’ lingo is “muy bueno” — a Spanish phrase that means “very good” but translates more like “awesome.” The brothers have been snowboarding six years. They are largely self-taught from watching the X Games and other competitions on television.

During the pre-season, the boys take their weather forecasts seriously.

“We have to because we have to know whether we can ride or not,” Jacob said. “Once Cataloochee opens, we don’t watch again until the end of the season, so we can see how much longer we have left to ride.”

The brothers snowboard together seven days a week and claim they’ll never get tired of it.

“As long as I can walk, I’ll snowboard,” Luke said.

“And if I can’t walk, I’ll find a way to attach a snowboard to my wheelchair,” Ben said. Ben scored a job as the Southeastern sales rep for TechNine, a snowboard manufacturer that makes boards, bindings, accessories, street wear and slope gear.

Despite the baggy pants and big shirts, snowboarding has its share of athletic prowess. Snowboarding requires daily workouts during winter months and creative ways to stay in shape when there’s no snow.

“We try to do everything — we skateboard, mountainboard, wakeboard. Anything that will help us get in shape for snowboarding,” Luke said.

Their cross training includes more obscure training methods as well.

“We play ping-pong almost every day,” Ben said. “It helps with your eye coordination. It helps with your perception.”

The brothers say snowboarding has also kept them clean — no drugs, no alcohol. Nothing to interfere with their execution, they explained.

“You can’t snowboard when you’re hung over,” Ben said.

The boys all credited their parents with being so supportive of their snowboarding over the years.

When asked if there was anything else they wanted to share about their sport, they offered up some snowboarding words of wisdom.

“Tailfishes are no-no’s. That’s my quote,” Luke said. “It’s a grab you should never grab. A stale fish is what you want to grab.”

“I think my quote should be ‘Never believe in 98 Degrees’ and ‘I like girls that wear Abercrombie and Fitch,’” Jacob said.

“Snowboarding is awesome and should only be done when extreme maneuvers are possible,” Ben said. “No wait. Change that to ‘snowboarding is best done in the presence of the general and the mankus.’”

Actually, there is one more thing. Ben (828.734.0457) and Luke (828.400.1013) thought it was worth mentioning that they are both single.

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