Is snowboarding facing a mid-life crisis?
The level of off-piste innovation in equipment, upside down athleticism and general energy in skiing right now, would have never happened so quickly—if at all!—if snowboarding didn’t happen first. Unfortunately, that level of enthusiasm is not being matched on the snow surfing front. Snowboard sales have dropped the past couple seasons, despite the rapid integration of the same rocker technology that’s changing the games in skis.
And while the sport has draped itself in rock star imagery, most Americans over the age of 18 could probably name every member of Pearl Jam faster than they could name a U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist other than Shaun White. In fact, as snowboarding hits middle age, the sport is increasingly looking back at its own roots, as well as hot trends in skiing, to try and stay relevant.
The problem with snowboarding is that it’s still trying to sell some outdated counter-cultural message (best exemplified by one brand’s 2007 ‘Poach for Freedom’ campaign calling on riders to poach no-board-allowed areas like Utah’s Alta and Vermont’s Mad River Glen) rather than focusing on just how good it feels to ride a snowboard.
Sure skiers made it hard on snowboarders in the beginning, and there was definitely a culture war at the start. As a skier-turned-snowboarder-turned-skier again, I remember those days when no ski area in Colorado would let us ride the lifts, and how mad I was in 1985 when I hiked Vail’s Gold Peak after hours and a ski patroller zoomed up on a snowmobile and declared, “We don’t allow sledding at this resort.”
So we just rode Loveland and Berthoud Pass instead, jibbing on Mother Nature and deep powder and hitchhiking back up with big families from Texas who asked us, “What the hell are you boys ridin’?”
There’s nothing as cool as kicking up a backside curtain of snow on a board, or dropping a big winter wave into a bowl of spring slush. Which is why it’s so mystifying to me how some snowboard manufacturers keep trying to concoct a faux revolutionary attitude about how the best thing about snowboarding is that it pisses off the squares. That’s the same phony message that initially resonated with the suburban school kids who claimed to “identify” with gangster rap. And, in a recurring case of arrested development, it severely reduces snowboarding’s potential market.
According to data from SnowSports Industries America, more than 70 percent of the snowboarders in the U.S. are dudes, and 27.6 percent of them are between 18 and 24. Get to ages 35-44, the age of many of snowboarding’s first generation of pioneers, and that number drops to 8.6 percent. Which means that many of the people who first fell in love with snowboarding, have not stuck with it. Why?
For snowboarding to keep appealing to potential riders from every walk of life, it needs to focus less on sticking it to the man, and more on celebrating the sport. More people just want to ride than want to join some vaguely defined counter-culture movement.
Thankfully, right here in Elwayville, there are several snowboard brands that have kept their focus on the fun and freedom inherent in riding. Never Summer is legendary among riders for its super durable boards, and for its focus less on attitude than design aesthetics and a deep sense of place. Since 1983, the brand has focused on craftsmanship, not hype. Which is the same message in Silverton, Colorado, where husband and wife team Klemens and Lisa Branner of Venture Snowboards are all about building bombproof big mountain boards for the high alpine’s burliest peaks.
Both brands have become pioneers in the development of splitboards, those detachable ride set-ups that let snowboarders ski up and then surf down the slope. Backcountry, sidecountry and any kind of powder country are the fastest growing segment of snowsports right now. And when you’ve got real terrain to hit, maybe, just maybe, you’ve got less time to talk shit about it.
Just as rock and roll becomes re-infatuated with country music every other decade, as some new version of The Band like the Avett or Felice Brothers jumps to the fore, or some new Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, Neil Young wannabe builds a path to the future by mining the past, snowboarding’s current ‘back-to-the-woods’ revival could be building strong roots for the future of the sport.
Just up north in the currently incredibly snowy Jackson Hole, Wyoming, this season, Burton introduced a new Stash park. The sixth in the world and only the third in the U.S. (Killington in Vermont and Northstar-at-Tahoe in California host the other two here), each Stash consists of a series of natural terrain parks built using local trees, rocks and the enhancement of existing topography.
It’s a cool combination of backcountry roots and lift-served excitement, and it could be a good barometer of where snowboarding goes next.
“The concept of Stash has been pretty consistent,” Burton Founder Jake Burton Carpenter states on a YouTube video that chronicles the new Jackson Hole project. “That’s to just take whatever the indigenous materials or features might be and just amplify them a bit.”
Of course, you could almost describe snowboarding itself as simply as that. You go up the mountain, you go down the mountain, except instead of skiing you surf it. Pretty cool concept, especially if you live in some landlocked state where snow and gravity are much more familiar than tides and waves. Which is exactly the idea that America bought. Winter waves. Cold weather curls. Riding the mountain like a long break back to the base.
It seems like you could be anyone that you want to be, and still celebrate that. •