During the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, America once again dominated snowboarding, bringing home five medals. Shawn White’s epic gold medal halfpipe victory run, and Seth Westcott’s come-from-behind gold in the snowboard cross helped define US snowboarding.
Snowboarding is as American as apple pie, classic cars and Facebook, with its roots founded as much in surfing and skateboarding as in skiing. Just 25 years ago only a handful of US ski resorts allowed snowboarding – last winter some seven million Americans tried sliding sideways in the snow. Snowboarding’s popularity in America can be tied to technical innovations, the appeal of a youthful counter culture, and the passion of its early innovators. While the history of skiing is steeped in European traditions, the snowboard was made in America by Americans. The simple question of who invented the first snowboard is unfortunately not a simple question.
Although the history of snowboarding will continue to be debated, it is known that a handful of early innovators transformed a unique idea into the phenomenon it is today. In 1977, the Eagle’s Hotel California spread across the airwaves, Star Wars had just hit theaters and a small technology company called Apple began to ship its first computers. It was also a pivotal year for snowboarding, with pioneers Jake Burton Carpenter, Tom Sims and Mike Olson laying the groundwork. Jake embraced his middle name and started the world’s most successful snowboard company, Burton Snowboards. Mike founded Gnu Snowboards with Pete Saari, making their boards in a garage. Tom, who already had a patent for Skiboards, worked with Chuck Barfoot and Bob Webber to produce an early hybrid snowboard. Sims Snowboards would become a major force in snowboarding.
By then both Jake and Tom had been riding a precursor to the snowboard called a Snurfer. While it is not technically a snowboard, proper tribute must be paid to its inventor, Sherman Poppen. During the Christmas of 1965 or 1966 (Sherman doesn’t recall), he attached two kid’s skis together side-by-side and added some rope to the tips so the device could be steered. He made the Snurfer for his daughters so they could stand up while sledding and it became a neighborhood hit in Muskogen, Michigan. Sherman’s wife came up with the name, combining snow and surfing. The $15 device was marketed mostly as a toy, but sold upwards of half a million units through it demise in 1979.
Historical credit also needs to be given to several other early inventors. M.J. “Jack” Burchett created a snowboard-like sledding device in 1929 out of a plank of wood with clothes line to secure the feet and horse reins for steering. Another even earlier sled, with dreams of being a snowboard, was patented by 13-year-old Vern Wicklund in 1917 in Cloquet, Minnesota. It was a modified sled with straps for the feet and a rope attached at the front. According to the officially filed United States patent it was, “a new and improved type of sled which may be used for coasting or as a substitute for skis in jumping on snow…” It is doubtful young Vern would have envisioned jumping as performing a triple-cork frontside ten (that’s three front flips and three full spins), or would have forecasted snowboard sales would become a billion dollar industry 90 years later.
Before revisiting three of snowboarding’s big dogs, New Yorker Dimitrije Milovich must be mentioned. After sliding down snow-covered hills on lunch trays in 1969, he decided to make snowboards. He worked with New Jersey surfboard shaper Wayne Stoveken, who is credited as being the first snowboarder. Dimitrije dropped out of college, moved to Utah for its plentiful powder, and started Winterstick in 1972, the world’s first snowboard company. The designs came from surfboards and used nylon straps to secure the feet. He added metal edges, which were later removed since most riding took place in deep soft snow. Winterstick continued to be a player on the snowboard scene until Dimitrije left to launch an engineering firm specializing in high-performance components in 1986. Recently with the help of legendary snowboarder Tom Burt, the company has seen a resurgence, focusing on backcountry snowboarding designs including their well-known swallowtail shape.
Welcome back to 1977. Jake Burton continued to improve his snowboards in Londonderry, Vermont, modifying the Snurfer design. He used water-ski bindings for control and fins for stability. Tom Sims and company produced a Frankenstein of a skiboard called the Flying Yellow Banana. It was a skateboard deck mounted on a plastic shell with skegs or fins on the bottom. Mike Olson continued to make snowboards in the Northwest, experimenting with deeper, more radically shaped edges, known as sidecut. He later added Lib Tech Snowboards and Bent Metal Binders to his anti-corporate empire.
Snowboards were not allowed on ski resorts, so would-be snowboarders practiced on urban sledding hills, ventured into the backcountry, and hiked up ski resorts after they had closed for the day. Although most early snowboarders viewed their passion as an individual form of expression, spirited “who’s the best snowboarder” debates raged, leading to early snowboard competitions.
In 1981 Ski Cooper, a small resort outside of Leadville, Colorado, held the first snowboard competition. The next year Jake and Tom competed against each other in a race at Suicide Six, near Woodstock, Vermont. Jake then held the National Snowboarding Championships in Snow Valley, Vermont in 1983. Not to be outdone by the East Coast, Tom put on the World Snowboarding Championships a few months later at Soda Springs Ski Bowl in Lake Tahoe, California. This was the first official contest featuring a halfpipe competition. Though most snowboarders never compete professionally, modern competitions such as the X Games attract huge numbers of fans and captivate audiences worldwide.
Although snowboarding continued to grow in the 1980s, only 39 of the nearly 600 ski resorts allowed it in 1985. The resorts who prohibited it stated snowboarding was dangerous and had questions concerning insurance. In reality, some resort managers felt the younger unpredictable snowboarders did not exactly fit it with a more conservative and sophisticated skiing clientele. The first snowboard magazine, Absolutely Radical, was also founded in 1985. As snowboarding became accepted at major ski resorts its popularity continued to grow, despite some resistance. Parade Magazine called it “the worst new spor … a breezy fad…not about grace and style, but raging hormones.”
Snowboards began to take on their modern shape in the mid-80s. Burton and other manufacturers added metal edges, making them easier to maneuver. Bindings received highbacks which allowed for increased control on both edges. Innovative binding designs such as triple-strap bindings, baseless bindings and “noback” bindings came, then thankfully went. Such may also be the fate of step-in bindings, which began in the mid-90s and are now quietly fading.
In 1998 snowboarding was welcomed into the mainstream of sports with its introduction into the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Two events were offered: the Giant Slalom and the Halfpipe. Canadian Ross Rabagliati, who speaks near perfect American, earned the first Olympic gold medal in the Giant Slalom race. His medal was taken away when it was found he had marijuana in his system, but that decsion was overturned.
The latest innovations in the development of the snowboard have been attributed to Mike Olson and the research and development team at Mervin Manufacturing, the parent company of Gnu and Lib Tech Snowboards. They altered the lengthwise profile of the snowboard base, called the camber. Snowboards had followed ski design and had been cambered, with the middle of the board’s base above the snow, while the tip and tail touched the snow.
In 2007 Gnu and Lib Tech Snowboards reversed this concept, building some of their snowboards with the middle of the base touching the snow and the tip and tail lifting upward, like a saucer sled. They called their innovation Banana Technology, and combined it with a new multi-segmented edge. This new design is preferred by some snowboarders for its performance in terrain parks, flotation in powder and ease of turning and spinning. Major snowboard companies followed suit, experimenting with different variations on the non-traditional camber theme, as well as changes in sidecut design.
Local personality Bill Lynch clearly remembers the first snowboard he bought in 1985. He had been teaching skiing at Angel Fire and saw an advertisement in a surfing magazine for a Burton Snowboard called the Elite 150.
It was cheap, maybe $129 and looked like it would be a combo of surfing and skiing. As soon as I saw it I said, I have got to do that!”
Armed with his new snowboard, a ski boot liner stuffed into a Sorel snow boot, and some duct tape for extra support, Lynch was ready to snowboard. “My wife would drive shuttle to the water tower in Angel Fire and I would make laps down to the base area,” said Lynch. After a few spills, he learned how to control the snowboard and was eventually able to ride the lifts and slopes at Angel Fire.
He recalls taking his new snowboard to Red River Ski Area one day. “I think it was in 1986, and no one seemed to know what a snowboard was. They said I could just go for it, so I loaded the lift and started snowboarding. By the time I came down The Face, there were a bunch of people cheering me on.”
Lynch improved his snowboarding, becoming one of the country’s first certified snowboard instructors. He continued to pursue snowboarding, buying a series of four Sims snowboards in the 80s and 90s, which he still owns. His latest snowboard is a far cry from the Burton Elite. The shiny 165-centimeter Lib Tech Skunk Ape features some of the latest and greatest snowboard design technologies.
Lynch was truly stoked when Taos Ski Valley opened to snowboarding in 2008. “I would snowboard Taos on moonlight runs and the employee days, but it was great to be able to ride the whole mountain anytime I wanted.” Today, only three US resorts continue to ban snowboarding.
America still leads the world in Olympic snowboard medals. So if a slightly out-of-control snowboarder with an enthusiastic flair for fashion, flashy maxed-out headphones, and a lip-cracking grin appears to be going too fast or jumping too high, remember he or she just might be training for the 2014 Olympics.
Snowboarding, you’ve come a long way baby!
Michael Johnstone, co-owner of Experience Snowboards, rides and writes out of Angel Fire.
From SkiCountry 2011.