Snowball Warriors

Harry Hurt
Weekend EditionMarch 25, 2011

I huddled behind a styrofoam barrier on a sub-freezing wind chilled park in Anchorage, Alaska, clutching snowballs harder than baseballs and bracing myself. I was in the throes of an exhibition match culminating the first United States team snowball fighting championship, a debut event in the annual Fur Rondy festival, Anchorage's version of the Mardi Gras.

The formal name for this absurdly fun but physically precarious competition is yukigassen. That's Japanese for "snow battle." It originated nearly twenty years ago as a scheme hatched by the Mount Showa-Shinzan resort to attract more winter season tourists, and it combines elements of paintball, chess, and backyard brawling.

A yukigassen battlefield is a 44 yard by 12 yard rectangle divided by a red center line and two blue lines similar in layout to a hockey rink. The field is punctuated by seven styrofoam barriers and two flags. A match comprises a maximum of three periods, each three minutes long, with victory going to the team that wins two out of three periods. The ammunition is 540 pre-made snowballs, or 90 per team per period.

The object of a yukigassen contest is to knockout players on the opposing team by hitting them with snowballs. One way to win a period is by having more players left on the field than the other side when time expires. Another way to win is by charging across the center line and capturing the opposing team's flag without getting hit by one of their snowballs.

My seven member all-male Northern Trailblazers team, which had been eliminated in the quarterfinals of the men's division matches, faced a squad consisting of four men and three women that had just won the coed title. The teams wore either black or gray colored bibs numbered 1 through 7 to designate our respective offensive and defensive positions, and as a safety precaution, white hockey helmets with visors.

Four of my teammates and I were over six feet tall; our star hurler played AAA professional baseball in the spring and summer months. On paper, we looked like the athletically superior favorites. But yukigassen isn't played on paper -- it's played on frozen tundra.

Sure enough, the coed team won the first period of the match by knocking out our star hurler and four other big guns. I survived primarily because I was the number 7 defenseman tasked with bowling snowballs to our forwards from behind a backcourt barrier. Period two turned into a replay of period one, giving lie to the sexist cliche that only losers throw like a girl. With barely a minute remaining in the period, my Northern Trailblazers team was down to two veteran forwards and me, the rookie.

Now it was either do or die. Leaping up from my styrofoam barrier, I sprinted across the red center line and dove toward the opposing team's flag. Nanoseconds before I belly flopped on the frozen tundra, I caught a snowball smack in the middle of my visor that rattled my helmet and the frontal lobes of my brain. The coed team let loose a victory cheer that must have reverberated the entire 1,000 mile length of the fabled Iditarod dogsled race course.

Minutes later, I retreated to the Anchorage Hilton for some direly needed adult beverages. My frontal lobes throbbed like a snowmobile engine, but I felt a childlike joy that gradually melted away the pain and prompted me to perform a bit of due diligence research.

As I discovered, yukigassen is booming worldwide. There are more than 2,000 teams in Japan, where yukigassen competition is becoming the equivalent of hockey's Stanley Cup. Yukigassen is also spreading across the Lower 48, with budding organizations in snow belt states from Massachusetts to Minnesota.

Frankly, I'm not surprised. The sport is in America's DNA. The 1770 pre-Revolutionary War altercation that became known as the Boston Massacre started as a snowball fight between local patriots and British soldiers. And the rest, as they say, is history.