Skiers may scoff, but snowboarders are finally being accepted by the slopes' old guard
Susie Tjossem will never forget the first, and last, time she stepped on a snowboard.
"Jake Burton came out, just before Vail decided to allow snowboarding, in 1987," says Tjossem, who was then the vice president of sports and recreation for Vail Resorts. Vail was one of the last ski areas in Colorado to allow snowboarding.
"He pulled up in his van with all these snowboards to have Vail Resorts people test as part of our decision-making process. They took us to the top of the lift, never having experienced snowboarding before, gave us a brief introduction and said 'Go for it,' as if it were the easiest thing in the world. Well, I body-slammed forward, backwards, forward, backwards, over and over again, the whole way down the slope.
"In the end, we all agreed it should be allowed at Vail," acknowledges Tjossem, who is now executive director of the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame. "By that point, we were already on the wrong side of history."
For the museum, that history dates back to 1976, when it opened in Vail, just as some of the earliest snowboarders were clamoring to be allowed on the slopes. Their homemade boards and makeshift bindings looked like death traps — and lawsuits — to ski-area operators and their insurance companies. But by 1977, Berthoud Pass Ski Area had snowboards dangling from its chairlift. Within a decade, nearly every ski area in Colorado had come around, and by 1998, snowboarding had become an Olympic sport.
It now accounts for 31 percent of all winter visits to ski areas, according to SnowSports Industries America, and each of the state's 25 ski areas now specifically caters to snowboarders with rentals, lessons and increasingly massive terrain parks. Even skiing itself has been influenced: Ski Halfpipe and Ski and Snowboard Slopestyle events will all make their Olympic debuts in 2014 at the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
But change came snowplow-slow at the museum — formerly known as the Colorado Ski Museum. When Tjossem came on board in 2007, her first order of business was adding the word "Snowboard" to the name. "I'm embarrassed to say that to this day, the sign on the building still says 'Ski Museum,'" she says.
In 2008, Tjossem recruited the first — and still the only — snowboarder to its board of directors: Trent Bush, co-owner of the Boulder-based companies Brandbase, Technine Snowboards and Nomis Design.
Bush and fellow boarders David Alden and Kurt Olesek had been working on an online version of the Snowboard Archive (Olesek is also working on a book on Colorado snowboard history) and dreaming of some day opening their own museum. When Bush approached Tjossem about collaborating on it, she decided to bring him on. Since then, the three men have had free rein to build and organize the Snowboard Archive.
"Before I came in, we did have boardmembers in their upper decades who would argue that snowboarding just doesn't have enough history to warrant a significant section in the museum, that it just wasn't old enough," Tjossem says.
The very idea of snowboard "history," with its lingering whiff of 1980s neon zinc sunscreen, still makes some skiers scoff.
But on December 8, Tjossem is hoping to close the book on the contentious battle between skiers and snowboarders with the opening of the Colorado Snowboard Archive, a major collection of snowboards, gear and memorabilia that tells the story of snowboarding's rise to popularity in Colorado and around the world. The collection is taking over a room previously devoted to the Hall of Fame exhibit, making it the third-largest exhibit in the building, after the museum's prize collection of World War II-era artifacts from the 10th Mountain Division and its extensive ski-history exhibit.
"It's been a slow climb toward this level of acceptance and inclusion of snowboarding," Tjossem concedes, "but we're trying our best."
The timing couldn't be better: On November 4, the museum met in Denver with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame to discuss the creation of an International Center for Snowsports History and Art, a collaboration that could serve as a second outpost for both museums and would house the Mason Beekley Collection of skiing art and photography (now at the Mammoth Mountain Ski Museum in California). David Scott, chairman of the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum's board of directors, says the proposed site for the joint operation is in Denver's recently renovated McNichols Building — a site that the city has slated for cultural activities.
Despite her getting her ass handed to her by that snowboard in 1987, Tjossem has since become one of the sport's strongest advocates. "I never did have the nerve to try it again after that first day," she says. "I have nothing but respect and admiration for anybody who can make it down the mountain on a snowboard."
Bush has been snowboarding since the mid-1980s and got his first job at the Wave Rave snowboard shop in Boulder when he was still in high school. In fact, he proudly proclaims that he's never worked outside of the snowboard industry.
Alden, a professional snowboarder who rode for the Burton Pro team from 1983 to 1990, is a snowboarding safety pioneer who also got his start in the 1980s, giving snowboarding lessons. His brother, Rick Alden, is the founder of Park City, Utah-based Skullcandy, which makes high-end headphones, MP3 players, watches and other accessories for outdoor-sports enthusiasts.
Olesek's snowboarding roots go back three decades as well, and he remembers the exact moment he first learned of the sport's existence.
"In 1980, I saw a video playing in a Gart Brothers store of this dude Ted Shred snowboarding," Olesek recalls. (The snowboarder in the 1979 film, Canadian Mountain Odyssey, is Blake Barrymore.) "These skiers are making nice turns in the powder, you know, making their figure-eights, and Ted Shred just comes blasting down past them. The narrator says, 'You guys have just been streaked by the Shred Baron.'
"I knew right then that I had to have one."
The next year, he bought his first board from the Wright Life in Fort Collins, the longest-running snowboard shop in Colorado and the first to carry the Burton snowboards featured in the Ted Shred clip. Olesek ended up working in the shop from 1985 to 1995.
As the trio began building the museum's snowboard collection, they learned that the history of the snowboarding industry itself goes back much further than they'd realized — to at least November 28, 1939, when Gunnar Burgeson, Harvey Burgeson and Vern Wicklund of the Bunker Company in Oak Park, Illinois, were issued a U.S. patent for the Sno-Surf. Like the snowboarders who would follow, these inventors were audacious, claiming in their March 7, 1938, patent application that the stand-up sled "may be used for coasting or as a substitute for skis in jumping on snow or snow covered ground."
After stories about the boards surfaced a few years ago, Bush set to work tracking down Gunnar Burgeson's son, Don, and granddaughter, Stephanie Dorn, and convinced them to loan the museum one of the original Sno-Surf prototypes from the 1930s.
"The holy grail of the collection is definitely the Sno-Surf, which the inventors' families also called a Bunker Board," Bush says. "It changes everything we thought we knew about the history of snowboarding, because this was much more than just a stand-up sled or a snow toy. These guys really tried to market it as an alternative to skiing and as a winter version of surfing nearly thirty years before the previously acknowledged roots of snowboarding.
"And," he adds, "it should go without saying, it's quite a coup to have a snowboard in the museum that is actually older than some of that spectacular 10th Mountain Division stuff and most of what's in the ski collection."
The museum's Bunker Sno-Surf board is 12 inches wide, 35 inches long (about half as long as a modern-day snowboard), and made of three curved boards held together by four crossmembers in a toboggan-style construction. To help riders stay on top of the snow, the boards had a rocker shape not unlike today's most popular snowboards (last year, Denver-based manufacturer Never Summer Industries won a U.S. patent for its own hybrid rocker/camber design). There are treaded rubber pads in the foot positions, and the raised crossmembers help hold the feet in position, with a rudimentary leather toe-strap binding for the rear foot. A rope through the nose of the board helped snow surfers control speed and keep the tip from augering into the snow, and the fledgling Bunker Company planned to ship the boards with a handheld rudder stick to help with steering and speed control.
"I was born in 1943, so I was a youngster when they were trying to market the Sno-Surf and get the Bunker Company off the ground, but I remember we always had these boards around the house," says Don Burgeson. "I have pictures of us getting pulled around on them like toboggans when we were little, and then when we were older we'd take the boards, hop the fence, and go snowboarding. We called it bunker-boarding at the time, but that's how we used them: Standing up just like my dad showed us."
Burgeson says he never gave the old boards much thought until a Sports Illustrated article on the history of snowboarding was brought to his attention: It mentioned the Bunker Company's patent, crediting his father and uncles with inventing the sport. "It was really my daughter who realized the importance of their invention and decided we ought to look into it further," he explains. "She thought her grandfather was pretty cool, inventing the first snowboard!"
From the family's research, it appears that at least a dozen boards were made as prototypes in hopes of landing a bigger distribution deal with a sporting-goods company. It's unclear if the Bunker Company ever started taking orders or making the boards on a larger scale, but family members have tracked down at least five of them.
The Burgeson family has also loaned the museum copies of the original patent documents and correspondence with companies like Wilson Sporting Goods, which declined to enter into a marketing and manufacturing relationship with the Bunker Company on the grounds that snow surfing had no future. They also sent a DVD of 8mm silent-film footage of the inventors riding their Sno-Surf boards in the 1930s. The film was apparently created for marketing purposes (see it at showandtelldenver.com).
"I'm not ready to sell any of the boards, because these are too much of a family thing and it's not about the money, but I would like to see them get some credit for it, which is why we decided to send one of the boards" to the museum, Burgeson says. He's hoping to bring some of his family to the exhibit's grand opening next month. "Snowboarding is my grandson Jake's favorite sport now. I guess it's in his blood."
The connection with the Burgesons was a good score for Bush, but a decade ago, long before he was involved, the museum let another big opportunity slide away.
Sherman Poppen, inventor of the Snurfer, told Bush that he approached the museum in 2001 offering to donate the first board he made for his daughter in 1965 in Muskegon, Michigan. Poppen went on to sell nearly a million of them in the '60s and '70s, inspiring young tinkerers like Jake Burton along the way. "He was told, flat out, that the museum wasn't interested," Bush says. That first Snurfer, widely hailed as the precursor to what we know as snowboarding, is now in the permanent collection of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Whoops.
But Bush did get his hands on Ted Slater's first-place trophy and ribbons from the first-ever World Snurfing Championships in 1968, as well as several Snurfers from the '60s and '70s. Poppen, who lives in Steamboat Springs, autographed one for the collection.
Other highlights from the collection include:
• The "Skiboard" prototype, which California skateboarder Tom Sims built in his seventh-grade wood-shop class in 1963. Sims rode the board the way today's snowboarders do, with bindings rather than a rudder or a rope in the nose. "We're really honored to have the first board he ever made in our collection," Bush says. "It has this crazy banged-up metal sheeting on the bottom to make it faster, carpet on the top for traction, and bindings made from old inner tubes. We also have the board he rode in 1981 at Ski Cooper in the first true snowboard contest, and we have the board he used during filming for A View to a Kill, the 1984 James Bond movie that was really the first widespread exposure that put snowboarding on the map on a global perspective."
• Chuck Barfoot's first fiberglass board.
• A 1977 Burton Snowboards fiberglass prototype.
• The Londonderry BB1, the first production board from Burton.
"Trent and David and their team have done an amazing job, and some of the unique, one-of-a-kind items they have gotten people to donate or loan us for this exhibit are just extraordinary," Tjossem says. "There isn't another snowboard collection in the world that could go toe-to-toe with the boards they've been able to put together."
After hearing the Poppen story, Bush and Alden had been concerned from the outset of the project that most of the good stuff would have already been snapped up by other museums and private collectors. But as word of the Colorado Snowboard Archive's growing collection has spread, some of the sport's biggest movers and shakers have been eager to make sure their own contributions are included.
"Snowboard collecting, such as it is, is really an eBay phenomenon, and the market for old snowboards has just gone up, up, up," says Alden. "There are some snowboard shops in Colorado and across the country with great collections, and a lot of individuals have great collections. My brother has a great collection and had it on display at the SIA Snow Show in Denver in January.
"But guys like Tom Sims, Chuck Barfoot, Jake Burton and Sherm Poppen aren't going to let the most important boards from their own collections end up on eBay to be hoarded away by some private collector," he continues. "Every single person who has loaned us boards for the museum has told us, as they're handing the boards over, some version of, 'I've been hanging on to this stuff for years and years, turning down collector after collector, just waiting for the right project and the right people to come along.'"
The snowboard archive will also tell a some local stories. A handful of Colorado ski areas led the charge as the first in the world to allow snowboarding, and the exhibit features early contest videos, newspaper clippings and other artifacts from pioneers like Berthoud Pass Ski Area (now closed), Ski Cooper, Breckenridge and Buttermilk Mountain, dating back to at least 1981.
Alden used to stay in the lodge at Berthoud in the early '80s, giving snowboard lessons before his own pro-snowboarding career took off, and says he credits Ike and Lucy Garst, who owned Berthoud from 1977 to 1987, with paving the way for ski-area acceptance of snowboarding. The Garsts also hosted some of the first-ever snowboard contests, and several of their early posters are on display in the museum.
"We had snowboarders on the slopes pretty much from the beginning," Ike Garst recalls. "I remember our lodge manager came up to me that first season and said, 'We've got these skiboarders who want to ride on the hill. What should I do?' So I asked him, 'Are they buying lift tickets?' He said, 'Yes,' and I said, 'Well, then, let 'em on!'"
Garst says he "got along famously with them, although there was a tremendous amount of resistance early on from certain ski customers, from our own ski patrol and, quite frankly, from other ski areas that did not want anything to do with them and were upset that we were letting them on, thus setting a precedent. But I liked the snowboarders from day one. Most of the group that came to us originally were fourteen- and fifteen-year-old high-school guys who all had butch haircuts. We referred to them as 'flatheads.'"
Berthoud was insured through the National Ski Areas Association, which audited the mountain every year. In 1979, Garst remembers, "they said, 'Everything looks fine, we'd be happy to insure you for the year coming up, but there's just one thing...'"
The association didn't want to insure the skiboards and was surprised to see them on the hill. "After a long discussion, we figured out that their official reason for not covering them was that they were concerned about an increase in lower-leg injuries," Garst continues. "So I convinced them to allow us to have the snowboarders for another year and we would do a comprehensive analysis of the injuries that the snowboarders had pertaining to the lower leg. We kept a tally, and at the end of the 1979/1980 season we compared it to the lower-leg injuries — ankle, boot top, leg, knee — that we had with the skiers, and we found that the snowboarders had far fewer than the skiers."
The association decided to go ahead and insure Berthoud. But, as Garst tells it, "they didn't ask us about upper-body injuries, and we didn't volunteer it! As you well know, upper-body injuries are much more common among snowboarders, because when they fall, they tend to stick out an arm."
The Alden family — David, his brother Rick and their father, Paul, flatheads all — was instrumental in convincing some of the other ski areas (and their insurance companies) to give snowboarding a similarly fair shake, pointing to Berthoud Pass as a model. In the mid-1980s, David wrote the first draft of a snowboard instruction and safety manual for the Professional Ski Instructors of America and, later, for the American Association of Snowboard Instructors, tearing down the last barrier for acceptance at most of the remaining ski areas. Both organizations are now headquartered in Lakewood, under the banner of the American Snowsports Education Association.
"A lot of people like to say that snowboarding changed their lives, but for my brother and I, it really did, shaping not just our careers but our entire worldview," says Alden. "Snowboarding taught us that if you could dream it, you could do it. It taught us that if somebody won't let you on the mountain, then you just keep fighting for it until you're the king of the hill. And it taught us that if something's not good enough for you and you have a better idea about how it could be, then, damn it, you go out to your garage and get out your tools and figure out how to do it right yourself.
"I think that was one of the most important lessons, actually, the realization that you could make something yourself, take it out and sell it and build a whole fucking industry," he adds. "The people who built snowboarding up from nothing are my heroes, and that's what we're trying to capture with this exhibit. Together, a small little bunch of us who loved snowboarding went out and changed everything."
Tim and Tracy Canaday, another couple of flatheads from the early days at Berthoud, loaned their first Swift Snowboards model from 1983 to the collection, as well as their first Never Summer board from 1991 and a special twentieth-anniversary-edition Never Summer board from the company's 2011/2012 collection.
Other Colorado companies featured in the exhibit include Hiper Snowboards, Skosh, Hill Snowboards, UCB (Ultimate Control Boards), Summit Snowboards, Aggression, Naked Snowboards and Solid Snowboards. The first high-back snowboard binding, invented in Aspen by Jeff Grell in 1983, is one of Alden's favorite items in the collection, and he holds a historic patent of his own, for Device, the first step-in snowboard binding.
"Burton was doing his thing on the East Coast, Sims and Barfoot were on the West Coast, and there were pockets of awesome things happening in the Northwest and in the Midwest, but Colorado became a real convergence point for innovation in the sport early on," says Alden.
His own first sponsor was Hiper Snowboards — Myron Knapschapfer built the boards in his garage near Sloan's Lake — before going on to ride for Sims and then Burton. "Burton was one of the first companies bringing rental boards out here to try to get that side of the industry going. My father actually had a deal with Burton that we'd get a percentage cut of his rentals at any ski area we could convince to allow snowboarding — and Sims and Barfoot both made Colorado a focal point of their efforts.
"Everybody saw Colorado as the real battleground, and it all coalesced around 1986, when Breckenridge first hosted the World Championships, which me and my family helped organize," Alden adds. "In retrospect, it was a disaster of a contest. Nothing went right except that everybody who was a snowboarder came to it. And that was enough. It wasn't too long after that that you could ride a snowboard at every ski area in Colorado."
Vail was one of the last resorts to get with the times, a fact that may explain some of the museum's early resistance to snowboarding: Some of the same skiers calling the shots at Vail were also lifers on the museum's board of directors.
But the resort quickly began making amends, and went on to build one of the state's first major terrain parks — marking another turning point in snowboard history.
"For a long time, snowboarders were very much trying to be like skiers," Alden says. "We wanted to ride up the chairlift and ride down under the chairlift, turning left and right and stopping at the bottom, just like skiers. All snowboards were made with basic ski construction, and we wanted to ride powder and moguls and race slalom and giant slalom, you know, do all the things skiers were doing. For a long time, the sport was really headed in that direction. And then all of a sudden it wasn't."
"You can see the change in the boards," says Bush, pulling out a huge 170cm signature model Tarquin Robbins board made by Aggression in 1991 and Robbins's blunted 150cm board from 1992. In the museum, the side-by-side comparison will be used to tell the story of that pivotal moment.
"Within a year, snowboarders went from wanting the biggest downhill missiles they could get to taking jigsaws to their tips and tails, widening their stance and cutting the high backs off their bindings," Bush points out. "It was like overnight we went from wanting to be like skiers to wanting to skateboard on snow. We started sliding on rails and tree logs, building great big halfpipes, and making videos that were more inspired by skate videos than by Warren Miller films.
"That was the moment when we really started making it our own thing."
Alden, who has grown less hard-core with age and sheepishly admits to doing some occasional skiing himself, says his own son skis and snowboards about equally, depending on his mood and the day's snow conditions. "The old distinctions no longer seem to matter as much as they used to," he says. After decades of skier-versus-snowboarder animosity, all parties involved say they hope the museum's partnership with the Colorado Snowboard Archive serves as a final bookend to close out the era.
"I can see where the older generation of skiers were coming from," says Alden. "Skiing was always this romantic thing, and there was always an air of 'skiers are skiers and everyone else is everyone else.' These guys fought to get access to the mountains in the first place, they cleared the trees, they built the lodges and lifts, they built the entire ski industry from the ground up, they built this museum — and then a bunch of noisy young yahoos come along demanding to be allowed to ride their snowboards on the mountains.
"This is how I explain it to snowboarders today who still don't get where the skiers were coming from," he adds. "Imagine you and your buddies work your asses off to get a nice skatepark built. How pissed are you when a bunch of kids with scooters show up? But I think we're now to a point where everybody acknowledges that snowboarding has made tremendous contributions to the ski industry — and not just to snowboarding, but also to skiing: Ski shape, size, sidecut and construction have all been influenced by innovations from the snowboarding side, not to mention everything happening with halfpipes and terrain parks. I think just about everybody now realizes that the ski industry needed that new blood to come in and shake things up.
"Older skiers and snowboarders may still hold some old grudges, but the younger generations don't give a shit about all that," Alden concludes. "I'd love it if the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum putting on an awesome snowboard history exhibit stands as the final period to the whole skier-versus-snowboarder rivalry."
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